Empire, Climate Change and Political Populism

Added about 5 years ago by Graham Turner

GUEST BLOG: #BookOfTheMonth author Graham Turner tries to make sense of today’s world by learning some lessons from the Old Testament.

It seems that we are drowning in national and global news that is truly alarming. Climate change issues and political populism assault our senses. I am depressed, and what little I can do about these seems to have a less than negligible effect. Having a positive attitude is not enough to keep me from despair. I am worried for the succeeding generations of my family, I am worried for the prospects of our nation and I am worried about the future of the planet. I therefore have to dig deep within my tradition to see what hope I can find. Hope, theologically speaking, is that amazing word which means more than having a merely positive outlook. Hope is the belief that God has still got something to do.

Our great Christian tradition does not simply call us to be good recruiters and builders of voluntary organisations (congregations). From the earliest parts of scripture we are called to demonstrate a new way of living: God’s way.

It seems that the general default setting of our world is to grow, to get stronger and more significant than others. Whether we act as individuals, as groups or as nation states, the urge is the same. The result is the depletion of the environment and the massing of wealth and power into the hands of the few. This is the way of empire. Global corporations ride high on this wave, while giving us fringe benefits to keep us entertained and passive. We are seduced by their meagre provision.

The call of the Bible is clear. Abraham was called out of the empire of Babylon with its injustices and worship of gods that promoted dominative and fear-based practices. God said he would make Abraham a great nation outside of empire.

The Israelites knew the bitter side of empire in Egypt, having been initially enticed there by famine where Joseph had become the prime minister. In those days no-one in the regions had any food because Egypt had taken it all—very imperial behaviour. Once God’s people had escaped to Canaan via the wilderness, the people were told to enact the economy of Sinai by not having a king and modelling the practices of the Ten Commandments. These were not arbitrary rules, they were an anti-empire, anti-Egypt agenda. They begin with an oft-repeated phrase (sixteens times from Exodus to Deuteronomy): “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (NRSV). God’s economy was rooted in a Lord who prioritised a Sabbath agenda. Rest and re-creation, justice and compassion, were to be central to the communities’ life.

However, it was not long before God’s people looked at the nations around them with their kings and imperial methods and cried out, “We want a king”. They were warned by Samuel what would happen, but still they went ahead and had their succession of kings. Having been seduced by the ways of empire, their young men were conscripted into the army, young women exploited in the palaces and the people taxed heavily. The kings became rich, the people became poor and powerless, and so the ways of Egypt were established in Israel.

Following the dire warning of the prophets, the great edifice of state came crashing down (as happens with all empires). The date 587 BC is deeply etched in the history of the people of the Old Testament. Babylon overran Jerusalem and destroyed everything. This was a defeat at every level. Many people were carried off into exile where all they could do was to mourn and grieve. “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” In their yearning and desolation they started to imagine and receive a new possibility, a new sort of king. This king would not dominate, manipulate, fight or exploit, but would bring justice and peace. But the people would have a long wait for this to be known.

When the time was right, God sent a king. If Israel was to have a king, Jesus was the sort they should have. This was someone who would rule in the tradition of Sinai and counter to the ways of Egypt and Babylon. Here was a king that would not kill, but be killed himself for the sake of others; that would not have a slave to wash his feet, but become the foot-washing slave himself; one who would not take more than he needed but demonstrate an alternative economy. Jesus became what Israel failed to become.

In the New Testament, the Roman Empire with its cult of Caesar became the new domineering kid on the block. Again, the seduction for God’s people to acquiesce and give in to its corporate power and provision was strong. The early church had to learn to navigate in dangerous waters and believe the counter-intuitive ways of Jesus Christ.

The ways of Jesus’ kingdom still seem counter-intuitive today. But like God’s people of old, we are called to demonstrate God’s alternative way. Recruiting people to become religious adherents will simply not be enough. We are called to be a movement. If we are called to be yeast, as Jesus terms it, then what we can contribute to the spirit and work of this movement will be enough. There are already many examples of this being worked out in different places across the world by people of faith and no faith that we can support and encourage. We also need to regain confidence in our Biblical story that this is what God has called us to and that in the end it is God who will do the work.


You can read more about this subject in our #BookOfTheMonth, Graham Turner’s God’s People and Seduction of Empire, “an accessible, radical and rare example of the aliveness and relevance of both the Old and New Testaments.” Get your copy today.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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