Good Friday Reflections: The Executed God, Paul’s Anti-Imperial Grammar, and the Church’s Response
April 5, 2012 5 Comments
“[O]nly if the form of Christ can be lived out in the community of the church is the confession of the church true; only if Christ can be practiced is Jesus Lord. No matter how often the subsequent history of the church belied this confession, it is this presence within time of an eschatological and divine peace, really incarnate in the person of Jesus and forever imparted to the body of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, that remains the very essence of the church’s evangelical appeal to the world at large, and of the salvation it proclaims.” – David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite
About a decade ago, Princeton theologian Mark Lewis Taylor wrote a book called The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America. “Executed,” refers to the death penalty and the provocative claim that Jesus too was executed. As one reviewer remarked, Taylor is reminding Christians that they follow an “executed God,” not just a crucified one; Jesus, like many of America’s and the world’s “surplus populations” died because of the self-interest of imperial and religious authority. And while we say that Jesus was certainly innocent, according to Taylor’s research and others I’ve read, there has also been the shocking estimate that as many as 1 in 9 death row inmates are thought to be innocent of the crime(s) for which they have been sentenced to die.
I’m going to have the privilege of responding to Taylor at a conference coming up in Claremont in just a few weeks. His paper is entitled, “U.S. Mass Incarceration as Decolonial Struggle: A Theo-political and Theo-poetic Challenge.” Obviously, the fact that he’s still writing about this reflects the unfortunate reality that the problem has only gotten worse. Having written some on the Drug War, I’m very interested in his topic. In many ways, the violence in Mexico and the overpopulation of our prisons are two sides of the same coin (for more on this, see the manuscript from my presentation on this subject at the American Academy of Religion conference in 2011 here). In Columbia and Mexico, Cartels pay assassins called sicaros to execute rival gang members. In the process, many innocent victims have been executed as well.
As a Christian, I affirm the creeds of orthodoxy. I believe in the resurrection, and I confess that Jesus is Lord. As many believers throughout the centuries have remarked though, this confession is vacuous apart from a life and a community that is striving to follow in the way of the cross. The church is called to testify to the reality and hope of the resurrection by existing as a sign, a witness, and a foretaste of God’s dream for the world (see Alan Roxburgh’s Introducing the Missional Church).
And as one friend of mine Tad Delay recently argued, this means that church, faith, and theology are always political. Of course this doesn’t mean only political; nor does it mean partisan, necessarily. Nor again does it mean coercive. Two extremes of passive resignation on the one-hand and partisan over-identification on the other are much easier and much more appealing than the narrow, sub-versive, transcendent path and vision of the executed One.
The very notion of gospel, eungelion, is a case in point. It is a term that originates neither from the early Jesus movement(s), nor from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew testament dating from third-century B.C.E.). Gospel was a term for the glad tidings that announced and eulogized military victories of Roman campaigns or the celebrations and sacrifices made on behalf of the emperor, who was uniquely proclaimed as soter (savior), one who brings world peace, the enforced peace of Roman power, the Pax Romana [which Taylor again provocatively compares to Pax Americana]. Glorification of the emperor, indeed his deification, “gives euangelion its significance and power. . . . Because the emperor is more than a common man, his ordinances are glad messages and his commands are sacred writings. . . . He proclaims euangelia through his peace. . . . The first eugelion is the news of his birth.”
When Paul forged a grammar dynamically structured around the terms gospel and soter, he was, in effect, laying down a gauntlet to the standing political powers of Roman jurisdiction and to its own divine charter myth. Paul’s couching the good news of Jesus as gospel and his talk of Jesus as savior (soter) bringing salvation, soteria (see 1 Thess. 5:8-9, Phil. 1:28; 2:12; Rom. 1:16; 10:1; 11:11; and 13:11), would certainly be heard as an alternative claim not only about the cosmos but also about victory and power in very concrete domains of earth and politics. Paul’s gospel set forth an alternative lord to the imperium’s claims to possess saving power, a clear challenge to the imperial cult running from Caesar Augustus to his successors. Our enforced distinctions between religion and politics, church and state, often render us tone deaf to both what Paul was saying and what the people were hearing: a theological-ethical-political challenge to the claims of the empire that structured their daily lives (82).
Other words worth mentioning that Paul appropriated from the public context:
- Pistis (this word often appeared on coins) – God’s faithfulness or loyalty to all people, not the emperor/Rome’s faithfulness.
- Kyrios – Jesus is Lord. Not Caesar.
- Eirene – “Peace and Security”: proclaiming peace when there is no peace.
Obviously, these too are politically charged terms, set in the context of his discussion of the coming “day of the Lord,” an event to “shatter the false peace and security of the Roman establishment.” As this indicates, his famous apocalyptic orientation is not an otherwordly discourse but a theopolitical challenge. [Nor are these] inconsequential terms. They are central to our concept of faith. And bear in mind that this message is meant to be taken neither as a call for violent tactical maneuvering nor passive endurance. By and large, however, we’re far too caught up in the latter (83).
This is why Taylor discusses adversarial politics and the need for a theatrics of counter-terrorism and resistance to empire for a movement in the United States against mass incarceration, and, as I want to appropriate it, against the drug war.
Ok, so the gospel was political. But it was also eschatological, meaning future and salvation-oriented for not just individuals but all of creation. Taylor addresses this dimension as well:
Yes, Paul has a cosmic Christ, and the powers of evil he addresses have a kind of cosmic and even metaphysical beyondness, if you will, vis-a-vis the politics of Rome. Yet, and this is crucial, we neither understand the apocalyptic Paul nor his cosmic Christ except through the adversarial stance he assumes and sharpens by critically engaging the political claims of the imperial cult. Recall that the imperial cult, for all its political ideology and practice, also made cosmic, religious claims. Rome’s gospel and Paul’s gospel do not represent an opposition between a political force and a religious force. No, this is a struggle between two visions and two communal ways of inhabiting the earth, both of which are inextricably political and religious. Both are freighted with this-worldly concern for flesh-and-blood human beings; both are full of cosmic and religious meaning and aspirations (84).
In sum, I would just say this: a lot of people are tired of talking politics, but that’s because the media and our electoral process has co-opted what should otherwise be the deeper, fuller, and more robustly theological importance of the political realm. It’s hard to imagine a more profoundly political statement than the willful submission by the son of God to imperial torture and execution. I guess in my experience I just get concerned that talk of peace and quiet in the shadow of a national superpower by the relatively affluent can quickly become an excuse for doing/saying very little to actually transform the world. At the same time, as long as we’re making a concerted effort to live the mission of God faithfully in our context, the still, silent mourning, set apart from the clamor of society’s shallow conception of democracy and freedom, might be the perfect way to honor and host of the crucified/executed One on Good Friday.