The economy and the empire
While reflecting on the state of our economy and the fear that its instability fosters in us, (ok, in me), this section of the book Jesus for President (below) came to mind. Claiborne and Haw take a look at the economy in Jesus’ day:
To enter the agora, in order to buy and sell, one needed to pledge allegiance so to speak, to the economy patronized by Caesar. Monetary economies are based on the belief in central authority (like Caesar), or else currency is just scraps of metal or pieces of paper. After affirming the centrality of the imperial economy, the person visiting the market would receive a mark on their right hand, allowing them to enter and to buy or sell. John the Revelator illustrates the tension: [“The Beast] forced all people, great and small. Rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark [charagma] on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark. Which is the name of the Beast or the number of its name” Rev.13: 16-17….
It’s the way the Empire branded you….
…Christians in the Empire faced the question of whether (and if so, how) they would participate in the market. The market was part of the empire’ abuse of the earth and its idolatrous dominance. If Christ was truly risen and God’s Kingdom was real, believers wanted all things in their lives to embody those realities. But it wasn’t easy to resist the temptations of the Empire, just like the Israelites longed for the stew they are back in Egypt. “We have to eat,’ they might have said. “Just cross your fingers and acknowledge Caesar.” And so John had to write compelling arguments against the market that saw everything in the “big picture”. He did not simply argue that various aspects of the market exploit this or that, rather he placed his concerns in light of a cosmological struggle between right and wrong. This indeed is a challenging call from the prophet John. Is he saying that we should not take the mark at the entrance of the supermarket? If we don’t take the mark, we can’t get in; how do we live and eat? We cannot live without the Empire’s supermarket! But it seems that John has brought his readers to see the greatest sin of the political imagination: thinking there is no other way than the filthy rotten system we have today. Is it possible we can’t see the destructiveness of our economy not because we don’t know it’s terrible but because deep down we feel that it is necessary and that therefore it’s hopeless to criticize it?
…We might even say that, in some sense, John was rewriting history from the perspective of the Lamb of God- Rome is no longer the prestigious guarantor of freedom at the height of its prosperity (as historians might have read at the times of John’s writings) but is the power that conspires to slaughter God’s love in the world.
The parts in bold have captured my imagination. We have long accepted the economic market the way it is, buying and selling, investing and taking on debt, pushing out awareness of those who are swallowed up by the immense greed of this beast. I am wondering if in the midst of the shaking of the mighty United States, if God is calling us back to a different economy, one of power through self-sacrifice, riches through giving them away and figuring out what it means to be a Christian in a time of suffering and scarcity. Together we can recollect what it means to return to God as our true provider and in turn share freely with all in need. Perhaps this is the time to re-imagine both history and our future economic security from the perspective of the Lamb of God. I believe this can be the Church’s finest hour.