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Evangelicals and Empire: Christian Alternatives to the Political Status Quo

Bruce Ellis Benson and Peter Goodwin Heltzel, eds
Published by Brazos Press in 2008

Paul and the Roman Imperial Order

Richard A. Horsley, ed
Published by Trinity Press International in 2004

In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance

Richard A. Horsley, ed.
Published by Westminster John Knox in 2008

Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke

Seyoon Kim
Published by Eerdmans Publishing Company in 2008

Constantine and the Christian Empire

Charles Matson Odahl
Published by Routledge in 2012

Christ and Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times

Joerg Rieger
Published by Fortress Press in 2007

Theory and history offer two contrasting ways for apprehending the large and multifaceted concept of “empire.” The six books under consideration sort themselves according to their respective tendencies to treat “empire” theoretically or historically. A concept of “empire” driven by theory will show centripetal trajectories and risk becoming reductionist while historical concepts will expand to encompass more and more particularities. In the realm of historical investigation, the question is constantly arising as to what constitutes an empire, how empires compare, and, similarly, what various kinds might there be. For the theoretician, a simple definition will do so long as it comports with other elements of the theory.

Theory as Reversion to and Revision of Marxism

One of the leading theoreticians of recent time, Edward Said, offers a starting point: “At some very basic level, imperialism means thinking about, settling on, controlling land that you do not possess, that is distant, that is lived on and owned by others.”1 He goes on to quote Michael Doyle two pages later in order to define empire. “Empire is a relationship, formal or informal, in which one state controls the effective political sovereignty of another political society.”2 (One might note that by this definition, both Syria and Iran are empires in the present time.) Those familiar with Said’s work will surmise rightly that, in his interest in working out from these definitions of “imperialism” and “empire,” he is not engaged in an historical investigation of the concept but a theoretical one. His purpose is to identify the ways that “empire” and “imperialism” persist in many parts of the world after nineteenth- and twentieth-century European colonialism has evaporated. It is the cultural domination of former colonial powers, he argues, that keeps oppressing the formerly colonized.

Oppression is one of the key conceptual elements that drive a theoretical as opposed to an historical conceptualization. The historian recognizes oppression where it functions as a factor in an historical situation; invariably, the theoretician constitutes an interpretation around oppression. Oppression is the terminus a quoof any analysis. Another term that may be used in place of “oppression” is “domination.” In theory, domination and oppression function as the central objects of almost any analysis because they impede the progressive emergence of human freedom. Theory continues the tradition in western thought embodied in the myth of Prometheus. For theory, however, it is not just a desire to see man stand against the power of the gods and make a space for himself but for man to stand against all competing powers and limits: divine, natural, and historical. Theory aims at complete, absolute, and irrevocable liberation.

Theory is largely a form of post-Marxist thought. (Marxism may well have a half-life of twenty generations; certainly it will thrive for ten.) While many theorists of our own time may deny any Marxist affiliations, theory is constructed largely of Marxist categories and functional analyses. The long shadow that Karl Marx cast over the twentieth century that continues into the present is not merely the theme of human freedom blocked by oppression and domination (by the capitalists, the bourgeoisie, patriarchal males, whites, westerners, empires, and so on) but of liberation as an eschatological hope not requiring the plan and power of a divinity but through the revolutionary actions in human history of the socialists, the proletariat, women, people of color, southerners and easterners, and ethnics. Implicit in most theories is the hope based on an eschatology that sees the destruction of old powers supplanted by new powers, the overthrow of the oppressor by the oppressed. In this new order, for the first time, justice will prevail.

Most systems of thought that come down to us from antiquity and even some from modernity have a theology. It may be expansive or vestigial but it includes some account of divinity. In Marxism and the post-Marxist theories that arise from it, any substance of theology has been evacuated, although some forms may remain: for example, a form of soteriology or a framework of eschatology. Post-Marxist theories are distinctly anthropological and take their cues from Marx by bringing heaven down to earth. For theory there is only anthropology—but what an anthropology!

Jeremy Shapiro, in an essay published in the mid 1970s, summarizes the anthropology of Marx and the many branches of the large and still growing tree of post-Marxism quite effectively.

The concept “embeddedness in nature” . . . refers to the fact that human beings have the capacity to act freely and create the future through the use of their rationality and agency, and yet are held back, both individually and collectively by their immersion in the past and in nature.3

Human liberation, for Marx and most theorists, is blocked by two forces, both previously attributed to divinity: nature and history. The project for human freedom is to overcome the limitations of the past: laws, institutions, beliefs, and customs along with the limitations imposed by nature.

In the state of post-embeddedness depicted by Marx, the individual has ceased to become the object of uncontrolled forces and is instead entirely self-created, ceaselessly going beyond its own limits by means of its creativity, and continuously participating in the movement of its own becoming.4

In recent decades, “empire” has become a focal point of theory for some of the reasons mentioned above, that is, because of the ways it stands to obstruct the process of human self-creation. While it was originally a central object in post-colonial theory, it has now become an element in other theoretical frameworks, including biblical and theological studies. Before we see how that is working out, we must consider a major work that frames the developing conceptualization of “empire.”

In 2000, Michael Hardt, a literary theorist, and Antonio Negri, a political theorist, published a book that develops “empire” as a central theme in twenty-first-century post-Marxist theory.5 One might assume from the title and the authorshipthat the book is a trajectory from Marx’s critique of “imperialism,” a term Marx associated exclusively with capitalism. But Hart and Negri surprise the reader who might have anticipated too much of the argument. In their revision of Marxism (one of hundreds now in play), “empire” is the Trojan Horse of what used to be called “The Revolution.” A global capital empire (not controlled by any particular nation-state) establishes the conditions under which the dispossessed peoples of the world see their state of oppression clearly and join to overturn that oppression. This is not accomplished by violence and the extermination of any particular class of people as was the case in the “revolutions” of the twentieth century. Instead, “empire” will be subverted by the “biopower” of the multitude, a designation given to all those right-minded people who see or sense how pursuing their emancipation will allow them the space to recreate themselves as a new creation/creature capable of living well with others who are engaged in a similar enterprise.6

The authors are critical of many postmodern movements and seem to keep adistance from them but clearly have revised Marxism in the direction of a quasi-postmodern form. The meta-narrative, the exclusivity, the modernity of Marx makehim an unlikely postmodernist. But then postmodernity itself is riddled with post-Marxism and would not have had the framework for a critique of nature, history, domination, and so on, except for the solid groundwork laid by the Marxists of the twentieth century. Hardt and Negri exemplify the family connection in their statement in the beginning of the book: “We use ‘Empire’ . . . as a concept which calls primarily for a theoretical approach. The concept of Empire is characterized fundamentally by a lack of boundaries.”7 Boundaries, of course, are the boogeyman of postmodern thought. Hardt and Negri make clear the form their revision of Marx offers:

The passage to Empire and its processes of globalization offer new possibilities to the forces of liberation. Globalization, of course, is not one thing, and the multiple processes that we recognize as globalization are not unified or univocal. Our political task, we will argue, is not simply to resist these processes but to reorganize them and to redirect them toward new ends. The creative forces of the multitude that sustain Empire are also capable of autonomously constructing a counter-Empire, an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges . . . . Through these struggles and many more like them, the multitude will have to invent new democratic forms and a new constituent power that will one day take us through and beyond Empire.8

For Marx, the proletariat was the agent and the state the temporary vehicle for the Revolution that would bring in the new creation/creature. For Hart and Negri, the agent is the multitude and the temporary vehicle “empire.” The proletariat needed the party to tell them who they really were and what they really had to do; that is, they needed an elite to dispel a false consciousness imposed by a bourgeoisie and replace it with the true consciousness of the worker. The multitude seems not to need the agency of a party quite so much because the multitude has been part of an ongoing resistance, a resistance that has already constructed a partially true consciousness of who we are and what, then, we must do.

Michel Foucault, not surprisingly, provides part of the theoretical structure for the authors’ concept of the multitude and its dynamics. “Foucault’s work allows us to recognize the biopolitical nature of the new paradigm of power. Biopower is a form of power that regulates social life from its interior.”9 The contrast is between an interior power acting in society and an exterior power acting on society. Foucault, the theoretician of the disciplined society, is used to establish the framework for understanding the resistance that he supposedly helped initiate to undermine and overcome it by having exposed it. With Foucault’s ghost nodding in approval, Hardt and Negri can assert that “resistances are no longer marginal but active in the center of a society that opens up in networks; the individual points are singularized in a thousand plateaus.”10 From the perspective of our two authors, the globalized, networked, diversified, transnational, boundaryless social situation in which we now find ourselves is intuitively, inherently, instinctively opposed to the tendencies of oppression and control previously possible in the fragmented, nationalized, and homogenized world that preceded us.

Let the reader be the judge of that assumption. In any case, for Hardt and Negri, “empire,” that global, exploitative, oppressive, profit-seeking economic gargantuan that so many people are prone to hate, actually created the conditions for its own demise. Out of its own propensity to erode all obstacles to commerce, exchange, communication, transfers and transactions, it makes it possible for the multitude to seek its own purposes, create its own meanings, and find its own infinitude of forms of life. “Empire” has to “wither away” in order for this to occur, but it can happen.

Although Hardt and Negri are good Marxists, they are no socialists.

In imperial postmodernity big government has become merely the despotic means of domination and the totalitarian production of subjectivity. Big government conducts the great orchestra of subjectivities reduced to commodities. And it is consequently the determination of the limits of desire . . . . We, on the contrary, struggle because desire has no limit.11

The authors have made desire the engine of their value system. What is problematic about the value system, and they admit it, is the fact that it cannot be measured; it is open-ended. “Value will be determined only by humanity’s own continuous motivation and creation.”12 There is no theology, only anthropology, and that as an open rather than a closed, fixed, limited concept. Pure immanence stands over against all the forms of transcendence that have oppressed human kind until now.

The Theoreticians and the Empire of American Evangelicals

Bruce Ellis Benson, professor of philosophy at Wheaton College, and Peter Goodwin Heltzel, assistant professor of systematic theology at New York Theological Seminary, have gathered twenty-one essays on the topic of Evangelicals and “Empire,” ostensibly to consider how (mostly) American Evangelicals affiliate themselves with the Empire that Hardt and Negri describe in their book discussed above. The editors make note in their introduction that Hardt and Negri describe “empire” as an interconnected, global, capitalist enterprise and not a single state. Nevertheless, most of the contributors, including the editors themselves, focus their analysis on a putative American empire and seem to ignore the Hardt and Negri framework altogether. When Hardt and Negri emerge in the analysis in a few of the essays, it is usually to have one or another of their observations appropriated for an argument about the American empire.

Like most collections of essays on a general topic, the Benson and Heltzel book is a headless octopus with tentacles reaching in various directions. What tends to unite a large minority of the contributors is not their commitment to launch a serious critical analysis of Hardt and Negri but a shared suspicion, resentment, distaste, or dislike for the political propensities of (mostly) American Evangelicals. These contributors tend to portray American Evangelicals as bellicose nationalists, xenophobes, racists, and self-centered supporters of capitalism indifferent to the plight of the poor and dispossessed of the world. Evangelicals do not, it is assumed, understand the complexities and nuances of what it means to be complicit in supporting the federal government of the United States in its imperialistic enterprises. And if they were to grasp the implications of their complicity in the American empire, they would likely not be able to respond appropriately given a less than fully Christian value system by which they should judge their sins.

Having made such a generalization about many of the contributions to the book, I must step back and offer some particular praise for specific contributions. A handful of the essays provide penetrating analysis, provocative and balanced thought, and even some useful critique of the Hardt and Negri thesis. In the case of the latter, take the essay by M. Gail Hamner, an associate professor of religion at Syracuse University.13 She is sensitive to the inherent tension between Hardt and Negri’s fully immanentist Marxist political philosophy and the American Evangelical’s substantially transcendent Christian theology. Hamner reads Hardt and Negri and contemplates American Evangelicals as a “liberal/socialist Christian feminist” and wonders how one might be able to reconcile what seems to be irreconcilable. For Hamner, it is impossible for Evangelicals not to support “empire” in Hardt and Negri’s terms because by definition “empire” exists because of a commitment on the part of many elements of society to a transcendent sovereignty. For Hardt and Negri, only when such a commitment is given up in favor of an immanent humanity ruling itself can “empire” be resisted and undermined. Evangelicals must cease to be Christians believing in divine sovereignty if they are to participate in the new order encapsulated in the Marxist eschatology.

In an essay highlighting the growing role of Evangelical nongovernmental organizations in the national and international scene, Jennifer Butler of the Faith and Public Life Resource Center and Glen Zuber, a recent PhD graduate in American studies and religious studies from Indiana University, write about the many-faceted ways American Evangelicals “are playing an increasingly significant role in determining the balance between empire and multitude through their powerful advocacy organizations.14 They recognize that the activities of Evangelicals through NGOs are neither monolithic nor one-dimensional and that many of the interests of Evangelical organizations correspond to interests of similar Roman Catholic organizations. Catholics and Evangelicals tend to stand together and often in opposition to liberal Christian organizations. The authors do not take a position on the merits of the Evangelicals so much as demonstrate that Evangelicals are indeed serving as advocates of the poor, the dispossessed, the victims of injustices.

In an essay taking on Hardt and Negri and American Evangelicals, James K.A. Smith, associate professor of philosophy at Calvin College, undertakes a critique of freedom as a concept that is shared by many Evangelicals and Hardt and Negri.15 Smith’s critique is of a “heterodox, libertarian notion of freedom” which he contrasts with a “participatory” form of freedom in which the subject is empowered to choose the good, a thing neither made nor defined by himself but by his Creator. Smith’s point is that Evangelicals accept too uncritically the notion that giving people in one’s own country or in other places in the world more personal autonomy, freedom simply to choose their personal preferences, is an expansion of the freedom that God has promised them. In Smith’s analysis, the freedom that comes from Christ must be seen as a radical and transforming freedom that converges on a teleology shaped and directed by the Creator God, not the pursuit of supposed individual goods generated by individual desires. In this critique Smith strikes at the center of the Hardt and Negri framework and exposes in the process what may be the unexamined assumptions of many Evangelicals about the merits of a policy of exporting from the United States a false and ultimately destructive form of free choice in pursuit of personal desire.

Michael Horton, professor of theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California, offers an illuminating discussion of the ways in which Augustine’s distinction between the city of God and the city of man directs the Christian toward an understanding of how he or she can live as a citizen of a particular state (or even an empire) and a member of the body of Christ.16 Horton writes in opposition to the position of John Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy as well as Hardt and Negri. His purpose is to demonstrate how the Augustinian/Calvinist tradition preserves the realm of the secular as a realm of common life and common grace shared by believer and non-believer alike. God is sovereign over both realms and carries out his purposes in history for both. Milbank attempts to realize in the present age a Christendom which leaves little or no room for the secular while Hardt and Negri argue for a complete secularization of human life in order to realize the proper destiny of humankind—absolute autonomy. From Horton’s perspective, Milbank on the one hand and Hardt and Negri on the other propose opposing programs for saving the world. In his exposition of Augustine, Horton observes, “A Christian would then approach politics not with the question as to how the world can best be saved but how it can best be served in this time between the times.”17

These and a few other essays to the contrary notwithstanding, the collection as a whole seems driven by theory more than history. An American empire is assumed, not demonstrated. “Empire” is inherently evil, but for reasons that also are assumed, not demonstrated. Resistance and opposition are the only proper responses to “empire,” but again because of shared, unexamined assumptions. The implicit assumptions seem to be that “empire,” more than some other thing that is “non-empire,” is a source of oppression, injustice, and violence. Why is this so? What comparisons might demonstrate this? Has the twentieth century with all its violence due to intense nationalisms been forgotten? Why are ethnic and national identities now virtues? Implicit in so much of the argument one reads in the essays in this volume is that “empire” is evil because it stands in the way of ethnic and national self-determination.

The sweeping generalizations in some of the essays take one’s breath away. A case in point: “All empires for the last five hundred years have had European roots.”18 The authors seem to be unaware of the Ottoman, the Mughal, the Soviet, and the Japanese empires, to name only a few. In the same essay the authors allege the so-called double predestination theology of the Reformed tradition has given its adherents a presumed “right to others’ land, labor, and bodies as entitlements of God’s chosen people.”19 It is hard to take seriously allegations so driven by theory and so immune to history.

The editors asked Hardt and Negri to append a response to the various essays in the form of an afterward. Their perspective is illuminating. They perceive better than most of the contributors to the book that the major divide separating Hardt and Negri from the Christian tradition is their rigorous commitment to an eschatology of immanence. For Hardt and Negri, “the multitude on its own can have enormous power, wisdom, and virtue without the guidance of a higher power of any kind . . . the multitude is capable of ruling itself.”20 This comment comes following their recognition that a few contributors such as Hamner, Smith, and Horton (treated above) did indeed highlight the division over the politics of immanence.

Hardt and Negri also make some claims in their brief remarks which relate to topics we shall consider below. Their claim is that on the one hand, Jesus, the apostles and early Christians in general were necessarily an anti-imperial force because they were objects of Roman oppression. On the other hand, Christians have become, from time to time, complicit in imperial oppression by virtue of the “Constantinianism” that has characterized the Church. One reason Hardt and Negri broach the issue of “Constantinianism” is that it was a term employed by a number of contributors and seemed to be an underlying theme. We must, therefore, examine it.

History as a Correction to the Phantoms of Theory

If “Constantinianism” is to have any meaning, then it must derive from the actual reign of the Emperor Constantine and the actual support of Constantine that Christians offered in the fourth century. Charles Matson Odahl provides a glimpse of many of the actualities one needs to assess in what might accurately be termed “Constantinianism.”21 Like so many pivotal historical figures, Constantine comes to us mostly wrapped in myth—myth that is continually being reshaped by the spirit of the times. Odahl attempts to bring us into an understanding of the Roman emperor through a meticulous examination of the full and diverse set of documentary, archeological, and numismatic sources read against what is known of the times and the places that make up the life and experience of his subject. That is to say that Odahl strives to bring us to the Constantine of history, not of theory.

In the author’s account, we get a running start by confronting the Roman Empire in the third century, a period of civil wars, instability, and disintegration. Toward the end of the century, Diocletian appeared and undertook to restore a kind of stability and reintegration through reforms of many sorts. To deal with the constant warring following the death of an emperor, he invented the tetrarchy, imperial rule through a twofold division of the office of emperor. There was a senior (augustus) and junior (caesar) emperor in both the east and the west. Eventually the juniors would succeed the seniors at their respective deaths, facilitating a smoother transition of power, or so Diocletian hoped. To deal with the disintegration of social life and many of its effects, Diocletian strengthened many of the pagan cults, especially those that he had affiliated with the power and good fortune of imperial rule. Unifying the people around the cults, he assumed, would bring imperial leadership and popular aspirations together.

One problem in Diocletian’s second reform was the very large Christian population throughout the empire. They refused to participate in the cultic activity of the deities Diocletian wanted to make central to civic identity and civic unity. By this time, some Christians had become Roman soldiers and administrators despite their long-standing reticence to participate in serving the state. The period preceding Diocletian had been more conducive to allowing Christians to take on military or government service without any obligations to participate in any of the cults. Diocletian then had to decide whether to unify the peoples of the empire he could afford to alienate one segment, the Christians. It was not Diocletian so much as Galerius, his junior emperor in the east, who pushed for a persecution and exclusion (even extermination) of the Christians who would not participate in state cultic activities. Galerius had more personal animosity toward Christians and was more committed to a strong policy. Diocletian was not hard to convince, however, and persecution became the policy. Into this context came Constantius, father of Constantine and junior emperor (Caesar) of the west.

Constantius was no friend of Christianity but he opposed Galerius and Diocletian in their persecution of Christians. He pursued a moderate policy: to destroy property but not persons. He saw no good reason to persecute members of a religion who otherwise seemed to behave in a way that might bring stability to the Roman state. This is an attitude that Constantius passed on to his son.

The manner in which Constantine came to be one of tetrarchy is too complex to recount here in full. In brief, his father, fearing for his son’s safety as he served Galerius in the east, brought him to his northwestern provinces and eventually stepped down in favor of Constantine who was proclaimed Augustus of the west in 306 in the city of York in Britain. External wars and civil wars occupied him until late October of 312 when he approached Rome to unseat the other western emperor, Maxentius. The story of how Constantine called upon the “Highest Deity” for aid in his endeavor is well known. He swore an oath that he saw a cross in the heavens which bore the message “Hoc Signo Victor Eris” (by this sign you conquer). As there were Christian priests among the entourage following the army of Constantine, it is likely he consulted them to elucidate on the meaning of the sign he was given. In any case, it seems Constantine presumed he had heard from the “Highest Deity” and did as he was instructed. He ordered his soldiers to inscribe their shields with the sign of the cross.

Constantine continued on to Rome where, unexpectedly, Maxentius came out to meet him with his army. The massive walls of Rome likely could have kept Constantine’s army from succeeding, but in a pitched battle, Constantine had the advantage. He used it, and drove Maxentius into the Tiber where he drowned. He went on to enter Rome without opposition—in fact, with considerable support—and established his residence in the imperial palace on the Palatine Hill. Upon his triumphal entry, Constantine failed to follow protocol and proceed directly to the Capitoline Hill and the Temple of Jupiter to make a sacrifice in response to his victory. It seems clear that already he was seriously entertaining the idea that he had been granted victory by some other deity.

Odahl pulls all he can from the historical sources to assess how and why Constantine understood himself to have been aided by the God of the Christians and what, then, he must do with that understanding. It is clear that he subjected himself to Christian tutors very early. As the author puts it,

Constantine was certainly a great general like Trajan, an extravagant builder like Hadrian, a deeply religious person like Antoninus, and a serious thinker like Marcus Aurelius; but he was no longer a believer in the pagan gods as each of them had been. His revelatory experience on the road to Rome and his climactic victory behind Christian talismans at the Tiber had altered his beliefs.22

It was likely an unexamined assumption of Constantine that true religion should be given its proper place in the Roman state. It would have been inconceivable to him or any Roman that the state should separate affairs of religion from affairs of state; both were pursuing the security and welfare of the people. Consequently, Constantine began to donate state lands to the church around Rome, though not in the center of the city lest he bring forth hostility from the powerful temples, priests, and pagan cults and create divisions in the population. His method seems to have been to foster Christian influence in the city and the broader empire through gradual and non-confrontational measures rather than risk once again hostilities between pagan and Christian.

Odahl provides his reader with a good survey of measures taken by Constantine to provide for restoration of property confiscated from Christians by the state during the “Great Persecution” waged by Diocletian and Galerius at the turn of the century. In the west, where Constantine and his father had sway, there had been less oppression and confiscation, but in the east, the effects of the persecution had been considerable. He also began a proactive policy of providing financial support for the clergy of the Catholic Church just as the pagan priesthoods had been supported by the state previously. He reasoned that by releasing the clergy exclusively to their duties of service to the deity, the state would reap the benefit of being in the good graces of such a divine power. He reasoned as most Romans would in seeking divine favor.

In the months after taking Rome and initiating these policies concerning the status of Christians in the empire, Constantine was the only emperor in the west (Maxentius having drowned in the Battle of the Mulvian Bridge). Two emperors remained in the east and did not look with as much favor on Christians as did their senior authority. One, Licinius, merely tolerated the followers of Christ and the other, Maximin, openly persecuted them. Ending this continuing hostility came to be a high priority for the western emperor. Thus, he strengthened his relationship 

Odahl traces in his narrative how Constantine made his way judiciously and cautiously toward a policy for himself as a Christian emperor of all the empire, Christian and pagan alike. His language was chosen carefully so as not to favor the Christian God over the others but always to make room for him. In his personal life he had come to recognize only one God, but in his office he had to recognize many—one of the challenges of managing a civic religion in a large and diverse conglomerate of peoples.

Another management problem began to confront him: the Christian Church on which he placed many hopes for justice and stability in the empire was itself divided and the divisions were becoming more damaging. Thus he found himself involved in adjudicating disputes or setting up councils and such to do so. Odahl delves into the many ecclesiastical issues Constantine had to learn about and resolve through the application of a combined church and state diplomacy. The Council of Nicea called by the Emperor in 325 is merely one of the more notable of his many contributions to ordering and unifying the church in its doctrines and practices.

The Christian theologian and apologist Lactantius completed one of his major works while in residence at Trier, overlapping in time with Constantine, who made the city his capital for governing the western empire. Upon completion of the Divinae Institutiones, he drafted a dedication to Constantine and appended it to the compendium of theology he had just written. The first paragraph reads as follows:

Most holy Emperor . . . the Highest God has raised you up for the restoration of the house of justice and for the protection of the human race; for while you rule the Roman state, we worshippers of God are no more regarded as accursed and impious . . . . The providence of the Supreme Divinity has lifted you to the imperial dignity in order that you might be able with true piety to rescind the injurious decrees of others, to correct faults, to provide with a father ’s clemency for the safety of humanity—in short, to remove the wicked from the state, whom . . . God has delivered into your hands that it might be evident to all in what true Majesty consists.23

It behooves critics of so-called Constantinianism to contemplate these words o fLactantius. Indeed they are meant to gain favor with the emperor, but also to encourage and direct him toward acts of justice for the welfare of all, not just the adherents of Christianity. In Odahl’s account of Constantine’s rule we see that the emperor came close to fulfilling the expectations that Lactantius placed on him. In subsequent years he enacted legislation banning various forms of cruel and unusual punishment, permitted churches, specifically bishops, to preside over the manumission of slaves, and allowed Christians to settle disputes not involving the state in church courts rather than civil courts. Justice in the Roman world favored the wealthy who could afford to pay for court judgments. Now with churches presiding over certain types of cases, the poorer members of society had access to fair judgments at little or no cost.

These reforms came at the expense of imperial favor then being directed toward one religion, Christianity. Constantine seemed to have been convinced that the Christian religion was more beneficial to the state, not merely as a power base, but in accomplishing the goals of justice, peace, and good governance. This meant, of course, that the state, while continuing to allow for the various pagan cults to continue, gave more support over time to the Catholic Church in the form of property, salary for clergy, and for influence in civic affairs. In 325, when he was on the verge of prohibiting pagan worship in the empire, he pulled back in favor of a policy of continuing tolerance.

Odahl’s account of the life and times of Constantine requires reflection on the generally unexamined force and meaning of the word “Constantinianism.” What is it that we do not like about it? Is God’s will thwarted by an emperor who converts to Christianity and then recasts policies towards his peoples reflecting Christian values and virtues? The danger is, of course, that the Christian begins to see such a regime as a clear and unambiguous expression of the Kingdom of God. But is God’s kingdom not advanced by Christian emperors, kings, and presidents? Perhaps more wrestling with the historical examples will clarify our confusion.

Theory as the Key to Coded Anti-imperial Narratives in the New Testament

Four of the books under consideration undertake to examine the perspective of the New Testament texts on the Roman Empire.24 In particular they seek to make explicit what Jesus and Paul considered to be the nature and character of the empire and whether either or both considered it the duty of Christian disciples to oppose openly or resist covertly the whole imperial system. In order to answer such questions, the authors of the New Testament texts are also scrutinized for their various attitudes toward the Roman Empire and “empire” in general.

Richard Horsley is the editor of two of the volumes, Paul and the Imperial Order(2004) and In the Shadow of Empire (2008). The latter offers a good summary of the trends in recent biblical scholarship toward a theoretical approach based on postcolonial theory applied to biblical interpretation. Horsley is editor of a number of earlier books collecting essays on similar topics, most notably one on Jesus and “empire” and another on Paul and “empire.” Joerg Rieger, in his Christ and Empire, offers a theological treatise on Christology framed by the concept of “resistance.” His work moves beyond historical and exegetical issues into the history of Christology in the west and in the process argues for a Christological emphasis that takes on the character of the “search for the historical Jesus” of a century ago, a search that gets behind the Christ constructed by western cultures to serve the irvarious interests. In contrast to these three volumes incorporating theoretically driven investigations of “empire,” Seyoon Kim undertakes an historical and exegetical investigation of the writings of Paul and Luke to determine whether the recent trends in biblical studies highlighting “the imperial cult” as a central factor framing the decisions, actions, and judgments of the Apostle Paul have validity. He began his investigation sympathetic to the hypothesis but finished it otherwise.

Horsley frames the larger issue in his introduction to In the Shadow where he writes, “Just in the past few years biblical interpreters have realized that once we start looking for them, issues of imperial rule and response to it run deep and wide through most books of the Bible.”25 Following Horsley, one might surmise these references to “empire” had been hidden from view until now, perhaps because we did not wish to see them or were indifferent to them because we have tended to support “empire.” But as one reads through the various essays, it becomes clearer, as well, that we did not previously have the proper theoretical perspective: post-colonialism and the larger theory of domination from which it is derived.26 Were we to read biblical texts as documents hiding and revealing colonial/imperial policies and practices and various reactions to them, we would better understand their major interests in opposing “empire,” specifically the Roman one.

The essay by John Dominic Crossan, “Roman Imperial Theology,” illustrates the point well. He begins his contribution with the claim that “Roman civilization was founded on imperial theology centered on the divinity of the emperor.”27 He immediately dismisses any counter claim that Octavian, later known as Augustus, the first emperor, conceded to projecting his “divinity” as a ploy for the provinces but this was not believed by the Romans themselves. To substantiate this claim, Crossan quotes Horace from a statement he made in 15 AD in an honorific epistle to Augustus. Horace, of course, is something like the poet laureate in the reign of Augustus and writes to celebrate his patron and floods him with flattery. From Crossan’s perspective, whatever an enthusiastic poet has to say is the final authority in matters of state. Horace simply contrasts the deification of Julius Caesar, which came after his death, with the deification of Augustus, which came in his lifetime. The flattery of Horace has little to do with how and why Augustus allowed himself to be considered divine in some way. For that one must consult a number of other reliable sources which make clear what most students of Roman history know well.

In 29 BC, Octavian, after waging war against competitors for more than a decade, returned to the Senate of Rome his provinces and his constitutionally granted powers. For what he had done to bring the civil wars to an end, to reduce the size of the Roman army from 70 to 28 legions, to enlarge the territories now under Roman control, and to bring stability to the Mediterranean world, he was acknowledged in 27 BC as Augustus. The title reflected the historic accomplishments of a single man in one of the most turbulent times in the history of the world up to the twentieth century.

Augustus was not finished with Rome, however. He knew that what he had just accomplished could easily fall apart. The institutions of the Roman Republic, now many centuries old, were not up to the management of a massive empire and contentious competing interests. He constructed a new form of rule using republican forms projected from an imperial power base. On the basis of the honor and respect he had achieved, he made himself Princeps, the leading citizen, but not king, which form of rule republican Rome had rejected centuries earlier and would not accept openly even now. Augustus seemed certain that new divisive struggles for power and new civil wars were likely to return unless he could stabilize the empire by garnering personal respect from all its citizens and subject peoples.

The way Augustus sought for and allowed for attributions of divinity to be given to himself were far more nuanced and complex than Crossan suggests. The details are too numerous to undertake here. To oversimplify, Augustus allowed his genius to be worshipped throughout the empire in conjunction with the divinity of Roma in order to strengthen and perpetuate the respect and honor he sought in order to rule. In some eastern provinces he allowed for the imperial cult to be established, as it was the practice among many Greek-speaking peoples. At first he was uneasy with the prospect of being worshipped as a god, as was the case with most Romans. He came to realize, however, that it facilitated his objective to stabilize the empire by associating himself with practices that made the various peoples of the empire feel secure. As the Romans and most other peoples of the empire assumed, security in life depended upon the divine favor of all the gods.

Crossan’s picture of the imperial cult is constructed out of the presumption of single-minded motives of raw power and the desire for oppressive domination. He tends to see Augustus imposing his so-called divinity on all the peoples of the empire, although such was not the case. Through most of his reign, Augustus accommodated himself to the differing religious climates in the empire and even was willing to make exceptions for the religious convictions of the Jews. Jews were the one notable nation not compatible with the polytheism of the pagan religions. So long as Jews presented no unsettling tendencies in the empire, Augustus was willing to allow them exemptions in obligations that might compromise their religious commitments. Crossan also fails to take note of the fact that Tiberius, the successor of Augustus, rejected the imperial cult entirely out of, it seems, some lingering influence of the older republican virtues. Instead, Crossan wants to drive home the claim that from Augustus on, the imperial cult was a central feature of Roman imperial life and that all the subject peoples were more or less compelled to participate actively in it. The facts seem to be that it waxed and waned according to each imperial administration, it was more significant in some regions than in others, and many Romans themselves did not take it too seriously.28 The Roman historian Suetonius confirms that fact where he quotes the Emperor Vespasian on his death-bed facetiously remarking, “O dear, I think I am becoming a god.”

Most contributors to the Horsley-edited volumes tend to follow the line that Crossan pursues in his essay on the imperial cult: that it was univocal, universal, and a major feature of Roman rule in the empire. To put it in simplistic terms, to live under Roman administration requires worship of the emperor as a god. If, indeed, Christians and Jews all over the empire found themselves obligated in this way, then it would have been impossible for them in good conscience to accept Roman rule. They would, of necessity, have been forced to resist, to be constitutionally anti-Roman.

Abraham Smith, in his contribution to Paul and the Roman Imperial Order, summarizes the issue at the beginning of his essay as follows:

Recent scholarship has suggested that Paul be read as opposing the Roman Empire. Religion and politics were not separate. Paul’s diction is political as well as religious. He understands the movement he is spreading as an alternative to the Roman imperial order, which stands under God’s judgment.29

It is hard to dispute Smith’s claim on the face of it. Indeed, religion and politics are integral in the first century but are not quite the same categories as they are in the twenty-first century. It is more accurate to say that in the 1st century the state, the social order, and most religious practices were far more integrated than they are in our own time. Our modern concepts of “religion” and “politics” reflect quite a different way of life from that of the ancients. For our time, “religion” has become a realm of private belief while “politics” has become the supreme framework and value by which the merits of all public and many aspects of private life are to be judged. Everything else is eclipsed by “politics.” Smith and most of the other contributors to Horsley’s collections seem to be attempting to open the New Testament texts to more of a modern “political” application and toward causes the authors want to endorse.

Determining whether Paul understands that his movement (Christianity) stands as an alternative to the Roman imperial order requires one to delve a bit deeper. Paul, many would argue, sees his movement as an alternative only in cases where one is inclined to absolutize the Roman order. Indeed, most Romans did. Eternal Rome is a transcendent concept, an object of faith, a presumed vehicle of salvation. But on a more mundane level, Roman administration is simply a necessary framework for an ordered and relatively secure life. It is to be judged on its relative justice or injustice, oppression or lack of oppression. Where justice is well administered, Paul supports it. Where injustice occurs, Paul either endures it or opposes it. It is hard to see that he opposes the Roman Empire in principle. At least, that is how the Pauline Epistles and the Book of Acts seem to present it.

The problem facing the postcolonial theory driving such interpretations is thecontrary testimony from New Testament sources. Much of the theory-driven scholarship is given to a new reading of such texts in light of the assumptions of thetheory. Theory requires texts simply to be read in light of the assumptions of the theory in question. In the case of postcolonial theory, there is the assumption of the desire of domination of subject peoples and the complicity of the wealthy classes of even the subject peoples in the process. And indeed, one can see all through history how this dynamic has been at work. But history usually provides a corrective to the homogeneity of theory. While wealth and power do make the world go round, history discovers the ways these work with many other factors. In the epistles of Paul and in the Book of Acts we see many of the other factors.

In Christ and Caesar, Seyoon Kim offers a needed corrective to the scholarship that has been under the influence of the theory of domination. He deals with relevant texts in Paul and Luke carefully and judiciously to see whether the prevailing scholarship can be validated. His conclusion regarding Luke is compelling:

Our examination of the evidence in Luke’s two-volume work has led to this conclusion: in a situation where the Roman Empire is not yet imposing the imperial cult and systematically persecuting the church, Luke is apparently led not to highlight the political implications of the gospel here and now by the interplay of various factors, such as his expectation of the parousia and consummation of the Kingdom of God . . . ; his understanding of the Satanic reign in sin as the fundamental human predicament . . . ; his political realism and relative appreciation of the Pax Romana; his desire to assure Roman believers and attract more of them by affirming the compatibility of Christianity with their imperial allegiance; and his respect for Jesus’ example and Paul’s ministry.30

Kim assesses the texts of Paul and Luke regarding the Roman Empire without the use of simplistic or reductionist images of the empire in question. In Kim’s reading of Paul’s epistles and Luke’s narrative, there are many varied contexts out of which the authority of the Roman Empire emerges. There are many different Roman officials. There are many different defining events. The New Testament writers take account of these differences. They are the reality of the history which they wish to recount.

For the theoreticians, there can be only one. If one takes account of the differences that history conveys, then the theory begins to dissolve and its power as a tool for opposition, resistance, revolution, and so on in service to bringing forth a new order is vitiated. History is the enemy of theory. But it may be the strongest ally of truth.

Cite this article
Michael G. Smith, “The Empire of Theory and the Empires of History”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:3 , 305-322


  1. Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York, NY: Vintage, 1994), 7.
  2. Michael W. Doyle, Empires (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986), 45.
  3. Jeremy J. Shapiro, “The Slime of History: Embeddedness in Nature and Critical Theory,” inOn Critical Theory, John O’Neill, ed. (New York: The Seabury Press, 1976), 147.
  4. Ibid., 149.
  5. Michael HardtandAntonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
  6. Multitude is the title of a second book by the two authors in question (New York: PenguinPress, 2004) in which they further develop their analysis of “the living alternative that grows within Empire.”
  7. Ibid., xiv.
  8. Ibid., xv.
  9. Ibid., 25.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 349.
  12. Ibid.,356
  13. M. Gail Hamner, “Acting in Common: How the Flesh of Multitude Can Become the Incar-nate Words against Empire,” in Evangelicals and Empire and Evangelicals and Empire: ChristianAlternatives to the Political Status Quo (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 43-53.
  14. Jennifer Butler and Glenn Zuber, “Empire-Building or Democracy-at-Work? The GrowingInfluence of White Evangelical NGO Lobbying at the United Nations and in Washington,DC,” in Evangelicals and Empire, 67-78.
  15. James K. A. Smith, “The Gospel of Freedom, or Another Gospel? Theology, Empire, andAmerican Foreign Policy,” in Evangelicals and Empire, 79-92.
  16. Michael Horton, “In Praise of Profanity: A Theological Defense of the Secular,” in Evangelicalsand Empire, 252-66.
  17. Ibid., 257.
  18. Charles W. Amjad-Ali and Lester Edwin J. Ruiz, “Betrayed by a Kiss: Evangelicals and U.S.Empire,” in Evangelicals and Empire, 55.
  19. Ibid., 57
  20. “Afterword,” Evangelicals and Empire, 311
  21. Charles M. Odahl, Constantine and the Christian Empire (New York: Routledge, 2004).
  22. Ibid., 109-110.
  23. Quoted in Odahl, Constantine and the Christian Empire, 127.
  24. Richard A. Horsley, ed., In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of FaithfulResistance (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008); Richard A. Horsley, ed., Pauland the Imperial Order (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2004); Seyoon Kim, Christand Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke (Grand Rapids,MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008); Joerg Rieger, Christ and Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007).
  25. Horsley, In the Shadow of Empire, 7.
  26. The work of Michel Foucault is influential as general background. The post-colonialism of Edward Said is heavily dependent on Foucault.
  27. In the Shadow of Empire, 60.
  28. For a more complete picture of these issues, see A. H. M. Jones, Augustus (New York: Norton,1970), 144-52; Donald Earl, The Age of Augustus (New York: Crown, 1968), 166-76; and ValerieM. Warrior, Roman Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 106-129.
  29. Abraham Smith, “‘Unmasking the Powers’ Toward a Postcolonial Analysis of 1Thessalonians,” in Paul and the Roman Imperial Order, 47-48.
  30. Seyoon Kim, Christ and Caesar, 193-94.

Michael G. Smith

Taylor University
Michael G. Smith is a professor in the humanities at Taylor University.