I was thoroughly impressed with Christopher Bryan’s Render to Caesar study of how the Bible understands power and empire. In this post, I want to draw together his major points, and I think you will see that much of the rhetoric today about “empire” and “colonialism” cannot be anchored as easily as some think in a biblical perspective.
The fundamental task of Bryan is to assess whether or not Jesus or the early Christians wanted to replace the Roman empire with another structure or form of rule. Such a theory very clearly often hails from the Blue side of the scholarly world. Bryan argues that whether you are Blue or Red (my terms), that is not the biblical take on empire and power.
The biblical take is this:
The biblical tradition is concerned, however, with the purposes for which power structures are ordained, and it is concerned that those in positions of power should fulfill those purposes. Thus, the biblical tradition subverts human order not by attempting to dismantle it or replace it with other structures but by consistently confronting its representatives with the truth about its origin and its purpose. Its origin is that God wills it, and its purpose is to serve God’s glory by promoting God’s peace and God’s justice for all. Powers and superpowers are allowed to exist, and may even be approved, but they are always on notice (125).
Bryan argues that some scholars have “colonized” the past to their own political agendas.
Power is neutral for Bryan: the issue is how it is used. Not only that, but power is a responsibility and not an evil. Those with power are accountable to God for using it properly. Here’s a very good quotation: “If you are Caesar, you must not claim to be God, but you may no more step aside from being Caesar than a mother may abandon her children or a captain the ship” (128).
Christians live with two themes and that means they live in tension:
They are exiles and are powerless.
They are exodus liberated and are powerful.
There are two temptations: respectability with the powerful and dissent against the powerful.