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Anglophile Pastor Throws Thoughts Together About Empire

Anyone who knows me knows I am a shameless anglophile. It all started with my BFF and roommate from college, Suzanna, who had framed pictures of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II hanging around our apartment, knew everything about monarchical history, and inadvertently got me hooked.

To this day Suzanna's contact photo in my phone is a screenshot of what her computer background was our senior year of college, a beautiful portrait of Lilibet herself. See below:

Like many of you and others all over the world, I was glued to BBC absorbing every last ounce of coverage, hotly anticipating the funeral, the outfits, who would wear what broach and other jewelry. Obviously I was waiting with baited breath to hear the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, deliver a stunning eulogy, along with all the other clergy persons who knocked it out of the park with their glorious and oh so sumptuous Anglican Church liturgical glamour. (Let me have this, I am a pastor after all).

And yet... like many of you, I was very humbled to discover just how deep my love affair with the crown runs through me. Especially because-- the crown, and the British Monarchy itself, is not only problematic, but pretty much goes against everything that poor brown-skinned kid from Nazareth taught us was wrong with the world. And yet, THERE I WAS, waking up at 5am-- to curl up on my couch to watch a group of people who colonized and conditioned the entire world into believing they possess some sort of inherited divine exceptionalism-- bury their relative. Yes, I am talking about Jesus. And yes, this post is all about White American Christians and our love affair with Empire.

And yes, I am going to do all of this while still having an awful lot of respect for the former Queen of England. I can walk and chew gum and wrestle with my own internalized American Exceptionalism at the same time.

To begin... As a graduate from Union Theological Seminary, a lot of my theological education was rooted in what scholars call an "empire critical" hermeneutic of the Bible, specifically the New Testament. It was my middler year that I took a class on Revelation taught by Dr. Amy Meverden. It was fantastic but also totally rocked my understanding of the New Testament. So much of what we read as "The Gospel" is actually material that was written and distributed throughout the Holy Roman Empire in retaliation to the horrific and harmful persecution that came with living under Roman rule. Part of what made Jesus and his little gang of misfits so offensive and dangerous to Caesar was that they were all running around together calling Jesus, Christos Kyrios, "Christ is Lord." In that age, that was a big no no. Because Ceasar was Lord, Kaiser Kyrios.

Loooong before little baby Jesus entered the scene, Rome had already built this myth of divinely ordained exceptionalism straight into their own religious and political praxis, referred to as the Imperial Cult (the literal worship of emperors and their families). Ceasars were gods. Deceneded from gods. Birthed other gods. For Jesus to be claiming that he was actually the son of God, Christos Kyrios, the "Prince of Peace" (remember Pax Romana? Hear the similarities?) was not only risky but unheard of.

When Caesar Augustus was born (from a virgin) there was this bright North Star, he would rule over the earth and bring Peace to the nations, blah blah, you hear the parallelism. Jesus and these Gospel writers were all saying these same things. Except Jesus was saying things like, it's not about power... The beatitudes? Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven? DO YOU THINK POOR PEOPLE WERE ENTITLED TO ANYTHING IN ROME? no. It was not about violence, carrying out ones will through state sanctioned violence (crucifixion), or oppressing peoples and exploiting resources for personal gain (again, check and check Holy Roman Empire). To Jesus, the gospel was a community kitchen in Nazareth with enough food for anyone who was hungry, washing the feet of those you might deem beneath you, loving the very people who would one day execute you, all in the name of God.

He took all the things that Rome had already thought of and turned them inside out. And Rome could not let that happen. Jesus had to die. So he was killed by the hands of empire in the name of self-preservation. But like any good protestant will tell you: without death, you can't have resurrection. And Jesus would certainly get a resurrection. But not exactly the one he might have wanted for himself (and the rest of us who follow his teachings today).

Fast forward to 313 A.D. and Emperor Constantine accepts Christianity through The Edict of Milan and ten years after that, Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire. Solidly number one, in my book, as one of the worst things to ever happen to the Christian faith but more on that later. Christianity forever becomes intertwined with empire. The very powers that hunted Jesus down and put him to death along with most of his family and friends was now walking around claiming Jesus as their own.

What happened was this divine exceptionalism and cultish practice of worshipping people and power simply got dipped in a gospel flavored white-wash that is still staining Christianity today. Look at what has happened in the United States in the last fifty years... The Religious Right, The Moral Majority, the way certain groups of Christians have adopted political personalities as messianic figures... This all stems from the enmeshment from 323 A.D.

I am well aware of the colossal leap in time and faith I have made in the paragraph above. But plenty of other scholars much smarter than me have already written about this exact topic. So if you need more evidence, read their work. I've provided a list of places to start at the end of this post.

So what does all of this have to do with Queen Elizabeth? I'm so glad you asked.

It sort of has everything to do with her.

If you know anything about the British Royal Family (which you have to by now from sheer osmosis after ten straight d a y s of nonstop coverage and narrating about them) you know that they were the last closest thing to empire we had left to compare to Rome. What does it mean to be standing the ashes of the last Elizabethan Era that we will ever know in our lifetimes, mourning the loss of someone who also symbolized the literal embodiment of colonialism in our world today? What does is it say about us as Americans that we still, after all this time, yearn for this idea of inherited exceptionalism while clinging to our own identity as patriots? Friends, it is time that we as White Christians, albeit British, American, or otherwise, come together to have a conversation about our love affair with Empire.

Part of resurrecting Jesus into our daily lives means we have to disentangle ourselves from the pieces of this world we can't quite let go of, like sparkly crowns made from stolen gemstones, or endless pageantry, bankrolled by the occupied taxpayers referred to as the Commonwealth. Until we can let go of these things that we obsess and collect and swoon over, the harder it will be to achieving the actual goal of Jesus and his disciples: abolishing the empires of this world, built by greed, capitalism, power, and violence, and trading that in for something that can't be quantified through monetary means.

Illustration by Nicolás Ortega; Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, The Sack of Rome in 410 by the Vandals (1890). Fine Art Images / Getty.

We White American Christians walk a tight rope of sorts. We play the victim of religious persecution when it fits us. We scramble for relevancy as churches across almost every denomination continue to shrink at alarming rates. We storm the capital. We take up arms. W cry that this is a nation built on the foundations of "Christian Values" (it was actually founded by a bunch of deists and like 11 presbyterians who owned enslaved people). But in reality, we are agents of empire, clinging to power structures that never belonged to us in the first place because God called us to be fishers of people. And not in the invade their country, steal their stuff, and never leave kind of fishing. But loving them to the point of dying for them kind of fishing. This nation was built on religious freedom, after revolting against the very same empire we have been mourning the last several days.

To qoute the Aboriginal Indigenous People of Australia, who have yet to receive an apology for the things that happened to them in the name of God and Crown, a favorite proverb of Queen Elizabeth’s as well, “We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love... and then we return home."

May we not be afraid of the future. May we be constantly reborn into a divine ordinariness that dwells on the beauty of humility and love of neighbor. May we always strive for that "more perfect union" between creator and created. May we live lives indicative of our hope and salvation-- the grace of the redeemed. In the name of our Lord, the Christ, Amen.

The God Strategy by David Scott Domke

With God On Our Side by William Martin

Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now by Anthony Gwyther and Wes Howard-Brook

The First Christmas by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossnan

And two other articles:


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