The Empire Strikes Back
In 1980 the second Star Wars film was released, entitled The Empire Strikes Back. A sequel to Star Wars released in 1977, the plot of this movie is comprised of the Galactic Empire hunting the scattered Rebel Alliance and in particular Darth Vader pursuing Han Sol, Princess Leia and Chewbacca, and Vader trying to tempt Luke Skywalker to the dark side.
The Empire Strikes Back is the second film of the initial Star Wars Trilogy which is the second most successful film trilogy in history, behind the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.
I believe that the Star Wars Trilogy tapped into something deep within people. In particular the powerful struggle between Good and Evil, represented by the figures such as Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi who use the force for good, and Darth Vader and the Emperor, Darth Sidious who use the dark side of the force in evil ways.
And I also think it tapped in to the whole notion of Empire.
And I use Empire in the sense of powerful forces that control and dominate people, especially in the sense of government, hierarchy, culture and social control.
Human history is replete with stories of the rise and fall of different Empires who usually take over territory and land and countries and peoples with force, and impose their values, their culture, their way of doing things on others, with varying degrees of violence, enforcement and social control. Most Empires subjugate others, or enslave others, with varying forms of exploitation, that benefit the Empire and those who control the Empire, and hurt the countries and peoples subjugated.
This subjugation or control has been called colonization.
And pretty much every person has some experience in life of powerful forces that control life beyond which the individual has not much control.
Pretty much every individual knows what it is like to have government, parent, employer, church official, landlord, family, peers, police…etc come down on you like a ton of bricks because you stepped out of line.
We all know what it is like to be told what we should believe, what we should think, how we should act, when we have done wrong….
…and we have rebelled against this...
Every family, every culture, every country, every religion or denomination, every school colonizes its members and tries to enforce its values, its rules, its laws, its morality, its expectations….
And so, we all can identify with the rebel who wants to be free.
The bible was written in an age of Empires and some of the most significant events, if not the most significant events are directly related to Oppressive Empire.
In the Old Testament probably the most significant event that happen to the Hebrews is called the Exodus and the second most significant is the Exile.
The Exodus, as most of us know, is about the time when God freed the Hebrews from the oppression and slavery under the Pharaoh in Egypt. Moses was God’s instrument in leading the Hebrews out of Egypt and to the Promised Land.
The Exile, also known as the Babylonian Exile refers to the time when the Hebrew Kingdom of Judah was wiped out and the city of Jerusalem totally destroyed.
It is actually a long and complicated history. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been defeated and many of its citizens taken in to slavery 140 years earlier.
And there were about four deportations of citizens from the Southern Kingdom of Judah from around 600 BCE to 586 BCE.
Finally, Jerusalem was destroyed. Many Jews were killed by the Assyrians 140 years earlier and then later by the Babylonians. There are estimates that over 20,000 Jews were taken to Babylon by the Babylonians, mostly the elite, the wealthy and the educated Jews.
The Babylonian Exile lasted roughly 50 years before the Persians who defeated the Babylonians let Jews go back to Jerusalem.
So, we have the Exodus and the Exile. All about dealing with the oppression of Empire.
And then of course the significant story of the New Testament is the story of Jesus who was born in Judea, when Judea was under the control of the Roman Empire, Judea was ruled by Herod the Great, a vassal of Rome. Jesus is just born when the Herod tries to kill him. And we all know that Jesus died on a Roman cross, crucified by the Empire, with help from Jewish officials who colluded with the Empire, and had their own little Empire they were protecting.
I believe that a lot of Jesus preaching was anti-Empire. I believe there was a real social message to Jesus preaching and he advocated radical change.
And Christianity grew, I believe, partly because of its anti-empire message.
The good news of Jesus said that everyone was important and that everyone was loved. It said that Christ died on the cross to show how much God loved all people, even ones who had done wrong.
God was about equality and justice and sharing and cooperation and forgiveness and loving brothers and sisters and even enemies.
You had a place in God’s new reign of love which was totally different than the Empires they knew.
In God’s reign of love, God was a servant to you, and God helped you, loved you, forgave you, even if you were the lowliest slave on earth, and even if you were part of the Empire and oppressed others.
All could turn around and go in the direction of love.
And for three hundred years the Christian Church grew based on love and fellowship and this good news of a non-violent God who wasn’t out to get you, but to love you.
It grew without creeds or a particular scripture. It grew as the gospel was shared mostly by story and word of mouth in communities of Christians.
A lot of people resonated with the story of being the little guy or girl amidst Empire. It really is the story of the bible as well as the story of Star Wars.
How is it then that the Christian Church became the Empire?
Harvey Cox who taught at Harvard Divinity School for 44 years in his book, The Future of Faith writes about the change in the church which happened at the time of Emperor Constantine.
He called the first three hundred years of Christianity the Age of Faith when a buoyant faith propelled Christianity amidst brutal persecution from the Empire. These Christians were all about a new era of freedom, healing and compassion, living in the Spirit, embracing hope and Christ’s work.
But by the fourth century the church had developed a clergy elite, and when the Emperor Constantine picked Christianity as the Empire’s official religion in order to bolster his own ambitions, it marked a fundamental change in the church. Constantine became the real leader in the church and he appointed and dismissed bishops and paid their salaries. He merged the Church with the Empire and went about a religious makeover, He encouraged councils where the church agreed on the canon on the New Testament and on the Trinity and Creeds.
Christianity devolved into a system of mandatory precepts and belief systems, codified into creeds. Heresy became treason. Treason became Heresy. And after 385 CE the Christian Roman Empire started executing those who didn’t believe correctly. According to one historian in the next two hundred and fifty years, the new Empire executing about 25,000 people for heresy.
Cox calls this the Age of Belief in the church. I think we could call it the Age of Empire.
It lasted for 1500 years or so and gave birth to things like the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and Europe’s colonial expansion all over the world.
And it is part of the reason why there are thousands of unmarked graves from Residential Schools in Canada.
When the church was allied with Empire, it controlled, it dominated and it imposed its values, its ways, its culture, its beliefs on others, and considered if you didn’t follow the church’s way then you were somewhat expendable.
That doesn’t mean that throughout that fifteen hundred years there weren’t Christians who lived by the Spirit or spoke out for peace or justice, or who practiced equality and sharing. There were millions of them. The strange and wonderful thing about the gospel of Jesus is, that even though Christian hierarchies were flawed and broken, many people still heard the gospel and followed Jesus’ way of love.
But the way of Empire is this… or what it means to colonize is this…
Empires dominate. They control. They use force. They use the law. They control production. They control media. They control education.
Empires separate. They create boundaries between the colonizers and the colonized. They emphasize the differences between ruler and ruled.
Empires separate cultures, but in strange twist they also want to homogenize and get rid of the culture of the the different, the minority.
Extreme examples are with ethnic cleansing or genocide. In Canada we put aboriginals in residential schools effectively trying to wipe out aboriginal culture.
And Empires control the big story. They try to fix the story to say that this is the way things are, and even, this is the way God intended things.
In the church for years the Big story was the women couldn’t be church leaders. The Big story told us that slaves were the way God intended things. The Big story used to tell us that gays and lesbians were evil.
The Big story told us that everyone who wasn’t a Christian would burn in hell.
The Big story told us that Aboriginals were savages and heathens that had to be converted not only to Christianity but to our western way of life.
Recently I read a book by a presbyterian minister, the Rev Dr. Sarah Travis who teaches courses in preaching and worship at Knox College in Toronto.
Her book was entitled. “Decolonizing preaching: The pulpit as postcolonial space.”
I quote from her book.
What are the tasks in decolonizing preaching? These include recognizing diversity and difference with the listening community and beyond, naming colonialism/imperialism as a past a present reality, speaking against the damaging and destructive patterns and discourses that have emerged within colonial/imperial projects, and coming to terms with the relationship between church and empire. (page 48)
She advocates grounding our preaching in a different ethos than Empire and for her that new ethos is the Trinity.
The Trinity from a social perspective is about mutual self-giving.
The Trinity is about self-differentiation, about each of the members of the Trinity being different but that is okay; and even though they are different they stay in unity.
The Trinity is not a closed entity but is open to giving and receiving… not only from each other, but from the creation, and from you and me.
So let us look at some texts today.
7 Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
The bible speaks a lot about freedom, and as we have said before, the most important story in the Old Testament is the story of the Exodus and God setting the people of Israel free from enslavement in Israel.
We all know that slavery is wrong. Most of us will probably say that our colonization is wrong. That is wrong to enter a country, take it over by force, dominate is, control it, be superior to the culture that is there and then seek to destroy that culture by assimilation, education, law or violence.
But a post-colonial reading of the above scripture might be to put yourself in the position of a Canaanite.
While Israel is set free from Egypt, what does it mean that they are going to go into the promised land and take over that land and dominate it? and what…? destroy or kill or assimilate or dominate the inhabitants???
A careful reading of scripture will tell us that the nation of Israel, although often under Empire, at times became Empire and did all the same things to others that were done to it in slavery.
A careful reading of scripture will tell us that the nation of Israel in its so-called golden age under Solomon, had conscription and forced labour to build the palaces and projects of the king and impoverished the people to glorify Solomon and make him even wealthier.
These are important texts and stories for us, because we all like to see ourselves as Luke Skywalker taking on the evil empire…
Scripture tells us that like Israel, sometimes we are the oppressed, but also like Israel, sometimes we are Darth Vader, controlling the narrative, dominating others, creating boundaries, trying to get people to think the way we think and act the way we act, not respecting the difference of others and their right to self-determination...
And then let us turn to the story of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark’s gospel.
A very interesting story and a challenging one for interpretation.
Biblical scholars debate the words of Jesus:
27 Jesus said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
It seems that Jesus likens her to a dog, probably because she was a Gentile.
Some say that Jesus was downright rude. Some say he was testing her. Some say that Jesus was echoing a rabbinic saying that to eat with an idolater is to eat with a dog.
But let us look at it from a postcolonial perspective. Who is the story is the dominator and who is the dominated?
Initially it would seem that Jesus the male is the dominator and the woman but virtue of her being a woman is the one with lesser power.
But where are we? We are in the region of Tyre. We are in Gentile territory again. Tyre in Jesus’ day was on an island, off the coast of present-day Lebanon.
It was known for purple dye, and it was said that the purple dye which came from sea snails was more expensive than silver. Probably that is why it remained a free city in the Roman Empire, because it was wealthy.
It was a wealthy city on an island that imported its bread. From where? From local Galilean peasants.
Therefore, it is entirely possible that this is a rich Syrophoenician woman who eats the bread made by poor Galilean farmers, who sometimes go without bread.
So, one might read Jesus’ words as something like:
First let the poor people in the Jewish rural areas be satisfied. For it is not good to take the poor people’s food and throw it to the rich Gentiles in the city of Tyre.
Who are the masters and who are the dogs? Are the woman and her daughter the dogs because of their race or gender, or are the women and her daughter the masters because of their wealth and their collaboration with Rome, and the Jewish peasants the dogs….
We don’t really know for sure…
Maybe there is even a double entendre. Maybe Jesus was playing with words so that you could take it either way.
But here is the point of this story.
That Jesus and the woman come together and dialogue. They break the social conventions. This is the only woman in Mark’s gospel who dialogues with Jesus.
They not only cross boundaries; they make a new space. Even though they are male and female, even though they are Jew and Gentile, even though they are rich and poor, even though they are dominator and dominated one….
They come together as equals, they come together to mutually dialogue, they come together to give and take from each other, they come together to be open to each other, they come together as different from each other, yet one in the spirit of healing and love.
And there is not only self-giving, there is learning.
It is a trinitarian experience which is an act of protest against Empire and colonization.
Jesus goes into Gentile lands and redefines the boundaries of clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, dominator and dominated one, sinner and righteous.
It seems to be that we in Canada have to enter a new space…
A trinitarian space with our Indigenous brothers and sisters.
For too long we have used the Trinity as a boundary to define who is Christian and who isn’t Christian.
Instead, we should use the Trinity as a social model and our way of being in relationship: and in this case in relationship with our Indigenous brothers and sisters.
That we enter a space of mutual self-giving. That we enter a space of listening. That we enter a space of not only acknowledging difference, but honouring difference, yet a space of unity and love. That we enter a space of openness to the other, and a space where we are not the teacher, or the superior or the dominator, but we are the learner, the inferior, and the servant,
… for in the words of Jesus for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve. God make us servants too. May that force of love be with you. Amen.