The return of George W. Bush to the news this week in connection with the opening of his presidential library, reminded me of the Bush derangement syndrome many people had in the last decade. We have Obama derangement syndrome now with the birthers and all the people who deliberately misconstrue the president’s name. I am not a fan of Barack Obama, but I think we should respect whoever holds that office.
The Bush thing upset me. People called him a cowboy as if that was a bad thing. My family derives from actual cowboys, and I grew up on a cattle ranch. To me, calling someone a cowboy is pretty high praise. Of course, thinking that we could pay for the war in Iraq with Iraqi oil money was a terrible miscalculation. I do not understand how they did that.
But there is a whole theme in progressive theology now that derives from antagonism to George Bush. This is the notion that Jesus and Paul give us a legacy of anti-imperial politics that applies directly to the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Richard Horsley was a leading figure in this. According to John Dart, writing in the Christian Century in 2005,
Horsley edited an influential book, Paul and Empire, and started a “Paul and Politics Group” that met at annual sessions of the Society of Biblical Literature. “We launched a serious consideration of Paul as [being] opposed to the Roman Empire,” he said. “But I think it was 9/11 and the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq that really provoked interest.”
A Google search finds little about these theologians speaking against drone warfare. Left-of-center and mainline theologians have been really quiet about this. So apparently it was just the Bush administration that was acting imperial.
Okay, so that is my opinion– that a lot of theologians are so caught up in their own political loyalties that they do not even recognize double standards. But the objective question to ask is what history and the Bible really say about empires.
Jodi Magness has a chapter in The Archeology of the Holy Land about the Persian period. Persia was a big empire rooted in what is now Iran. A watershed in biblical history is the Babylonian conquest of Judah, the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the exile of many to Babylon. But the Babylonian empire did not long survive this victory. Babylon fell and Persia arose.
The Persian Empire let the Jews go back to Jerusalem to rebuild. So Ezra, Nehemiah, and Second Isaiah all have a surprisingly (to those who think the Bible hates all empire) positive view of the Persian Empire.
Written history is hard on the Persians because the Greeks, who hated them, wrote most of it (the movie 300 is a contemporary perpetuation of this). But archeology confirms that the Persians had a moderate and tolerant stance toward their subjects. Ezra 1:1-4 almost says that the Emperor Cyrus was a YHWH believer. He wasn’t. But he was pretty enlightened. We have his “Cyrus cylinder” on which he explained his actions. He says (as though he had power over divinities) that he sent the gods of the various subject people home and provided them with temples. His motive? “Daily, may all the gods whom I have brought back to their holy sites speak on my behalf for long life and plead my favor before Bel and Nebo.”
So he might have given the Jews the impression that he believed in their God. However, he was just expressing a pluralism and a calculated covering of his bases.
I am sorry to have used Magness as a backdrop to talk about politics and theology today. That is not her agenda. However, she does express a positive view of the Persian Empire. Of course, this is relative and culture-bound. They would not stand up well against a standard like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The biblical and theological point to be made is that there are empires and then there are empires. Babylon became the symbol for bad empires. But Cyrus and his Persian empire showed a side of empire that helped people of faith.
Jesus was prophesying an apocalyptic end to the whole world system. Yet Jesus, by saying to give Caesar his due, recognized a limited role for the empire. And Paul, probably because of his interest in the future of his mission and the communities he had founded, wanted people to cooperate with the empire and pray for it in the hope that it would turn out more like Persia than Babylon. By the time of the Book of Revelation, Rome had shown itself as like Babylon, so Revelation calls Rome Babylon the Great.
In as much as America is an empire, it is still one that could go either way. Religious people, in my opinion, should just quit thinking that America is Israel rather than Persia or Rome. The main concern of biblical writers about Persia and Rome was whether they hindered or tolerated the people of God.
Anyway, to posit a monolithic biblical antagonism to empire seems mistaken. And to focus it as a polemic against particular president seems unfair.