A brief musing on Paul

We now can say from studies in all related fields, including epigraphy and archaeology, that the cult of Caesar the divine ruler was not merely one among other religious choices available to denizens of the ancient Roman empire. Instead, we should see it as largely the glue that held the empire together on multiple levels – political, social, religious, even economic. Particularly in the regions where Paul traveled and preached, it was the dominant cult and the means by which Rome controlled large parts of its imperial territory and population. After all, who needs armies when your king is a god and can be worshiped?

Because of this, Paul’s evangelism cannot be understood in terms of a traveling preacher who offered people a new religious experience, one superior to the religous understandings they had previously possessed. Rather, he should be seen as a kind of traveling ambassador (a term he actually uses to describe himself) for a new king-in-waiting, establishing colonies of people loyal to this new king, ordering their lives and practices according to the story and symbols of this new king, rather than to the imperial Roman story that formed the dominant religious, as well as political, mythos of the time. Paul called his converts to order their minds according to the truth of the story of Christ, not of Caesar’s. This can only be construed as deeply subversive and counter-imperial. The fact that Paul ended up in prison, executed under the reign of the “god” Nero is a sign that he did his duty for the new king quite properly.

Of course, as a Jew, Paul’s allegiance would have been to God the king, rather than to any human-made god or king. What’s interesting is that Paul defines allegiance to Christ in precisely the terms the Old Testament uses to exhort people to ally themselves with God and to eschew idols. Following Christ in Paul’s conception, then, cannot be divorced from a radically different conception of the world and how we ought to see it, smell it, live in it, than those conceptions the domination systems of the world would inundate us with.

Hearing differently leads to believing differently, which leads to imagining differently, which leads to living differently, which leads to hearing differently… “You will come to know me only as you follow me” (James McClendon’s translation of God’s revelation to Moses “I AM WHO I AM”). Only as we come to know God will we know ourselves. And only as we see the face of Christ in our neighbor will we come to know God. Thus the three loves, of God, neighbor, and self, are inextricably entwined. Let us imagine the world through the story of the Crucified God-Man, the one who washed his disciples’ feet and to whom all knees will bow.

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“[I] had been living inside their imagination.”

Recently I read the excellent novel Imagining Argentina by Thornton Wilder. The book is set in Argentina under a military junta of the type the United States tends to support in our so-called “ally” countries. People are constantly disappearing, being abducted by agents of the regime, including the wife of Carlos. Carlos possesses a mysterious and wonderful/terrible gift, the gift of being able to see in his imagination what is actually happening/has happened/will happen to “the disappeareds” when their loved ones tell him their stories.

At a particularly poignant moment in the narrative, Carlos comes to a great revelation – that Argentina, under the rule of the junta, is essentially a creation of the generals’ imagination. He realizes the generals are essentially dreaming their very existence, and that “he is living inside their imagination”.

Citing Benedict Anderson and calling the nation-state “one important and historically contingent type of ‘imagined community’ around which. . . conceptions of politics tend to gather,” William Cavanaugh says:

Politics is a practice of the imagination. Sometimes politics is the ‘art of the possible,’ but it is always an art, and engages the imagination just as art does. We are often fooled by the seeming solidity of the materials of politics, its armies and offices, into forgetting that these materials are marshalled by acts of the imagination. How does a provincial farm boy become persuaded that he must travel as a soldier to another part of the world and kill people he knows nothing about? He must be convinced of the reality of borders, and imagine himself deeply, mystically, united to a wider national community that stops abruptly at those borders (Theopolitical Imagination, p. 1).

Cavanaugh posits Christian worship, particularly in imbibing the Eucharist, as the supreme act of alternative imagination. I developed several of my arguments from my last post about the nature of the church as katholikos, as universal-and-local symbiotically linked, from his conception of Eucharist and church linked mysteriously in/as the body of Christ. If our first allegiance is to the katholikos, and not to any nation, state, or economic system, then truly this is subversive practice, indeed – we seek to inhabit God’s imagination, not that of the state, militarism, or capitalism.

I’m not going to say much more than that for now, I just got back from Champaign, Illinois where Derrick Jensen spoke tonight on campus at the University of Illinois, and it’s well past time to sleep. But I wanted to leave you with a couple of questions, which you can feel free to answer in comments or to post on your own blogs, online journals, the corkboards in your dorm rooms, or whatever. If you actually do physically write your response and post it on a corkboard I would love for you to send me a picture.

1. In what ways are your community, whether it’s a faith community or simply the community of your neighborhood/apartment complex/residence hall, being dreamed by the corporations, by the government(s), or by other oppressive forces that seek to exploit or control you?

2. In what ways are you as an individual being dreamed in the same way?

3. What things you experience in your own life, whether in person or vicariously through reading or other media, give you the tools to begin living out of an alternative imagination?

4. Does faith fuel your resistance? If so, how? If yes, why (or if no, why not)?

5. What is something you can do to begin resisting in a new way, right now?

As an aside on that last question, remember that Lent is just around the corner – what an amazing opportunity not just to “give up” something out of some misguided sense of obligation, but rather to deeply examine your life to find a social/thought practice or consumptive habit that is not in line with the values of the basilea of God, to nail it to the cross with Christ, and to celebrate the breaking of its power over you with the resurrection? I’ll post more about this in the future.

Shalom!