Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Approaching the Center (and Temptations) of Imperial Power

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament
I spent last week in Istanbul. It was my first time ever in Turkey and I loved the experience. Most of the week was spent with some of my favorite kinds of people – Bible translators – as an invited participant in a global consultation called by SIL International to discuss some challenging issues being faced by Wycliffe Bible Translators and others working in the field.
On Saturday¸ my last day in the country, I was able to do some basic exploring of the city. I visited the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul and got to see the Soreg Inscription, the Siloam Inscription and the Gezer calendar, among other things. I also visited the Hagia Sophia museum, which was Constantinople’s cathedral from A.D. 360 until it was turned into a mosque in A.D. 1453. It has been a museum since 1935. It is a fascinating place, the key to so much important history in that time period. Among other sights in the main hall one may see the Omphalion, the spot where the coronation of every Byzantine emperor took place over many centuries (the large round slab in the middle of the smaller marble slabs) and where they would sit during religious ceremonies.
I couldn’t help but think about the continuing relationship between religion and politics through time – of both the good and the bad things that flowed from establishing Christian (and then Islamic) empires – and of our current political situation here in the U.S. where one can find a fusing together of some forms of evangelical piety with Republican political agendas with little or no attention being given to the exploitation that takes place when political agendas and religious identification are merged. All the talk about “culture wars” suggests a very dangerous metaphor is at work that is designed to lead to militant political fighting and to perceiving some Americans as enemies to be opposed and beaten. As the political campaigning in this country begins to get more and more heated I’m sure we can expect to see more and more candidates seeking votes on the basis (in part, at least) of the religious convictions they hold, and with the explicit or implicit promise that those convictions would lead them to support policies that would be pleasing to those who hold similar religious convictions.
I confess this keeps me thinking about issues of cultural and religious imperialism and their presence even in places that lack kings, emperors and thrones…. May God give us all wisdom to discern the kind of leadership our nation needs and to live out our faith with a humility that honors Christ, the perfect King, the one who taught us to put the needs of others (especially the weak, powerless and marginalized – those who are unable to help themselves) above our own interests. In 1 Peter 5:3-4 we are told that Christian leaders should follow Christ’s example and “not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away” (NRSV).
If only our politicians (and the Christian leaders they woo) would demonstrate a commitment to using their influence not to build the coffers and power of one political party at the expense of the other, or to lead one sector of our society to lord it over any other, but to lead us all to adopt stances of humility marked by wisdom, compassion and selflessness. I think that kind of power would show just how wrong-headed both explicit and implicit forms of imperialism are when it comes to seeking the common good.

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