Note: These first posts will be considerably longer as they are the text of the introductory sermon I gave at our church on August 21st. For all you auditory learners, I believe the link to the podcast is still live and can be accessed here.
Also, as I am on the plebeian plan, I can’t display video directly in the posts. You can view the clip with which the message began here.
In the first half of the 19th century, as the Second Great Awakening sparked revivals all along America’s quickly-expanding frontier, an utterly unique form of musical expression developed among the South’s black slaves. Not to be duplicated by enslaved people in the Caribbean, Africa, or Europe, the “Negro Spiritual,” as it was called, was the result of the coming together of the Gospel, white hymns, African musical styles, and the trials and injustice of American slavery. The white masters introduced the Christian religion to their slaves, teaching them the great stories of our faith through reading Scripture and simple hymns. Some did this legitimately desiring the salvation of their slaves, while others (more insidiously) saw in the Bible’s seeming acceptance of slavery an opportunity to further repress and increase control over their property. They hoped by gaining their slaves’ spiritual allegiance to gain their physical submission.
Well the slaves listened. And what they heard were tales of a nation led out of slavery; of a God who would even dry up seas and rivers to help His people cross into their Promised Land–this other country where a person could be free to love and serve the Lord, to plow their own fields and build their own homes, rather than those of their masters. Of a God who was explicitly and uncompromisingly for the downtrodden, dispossessed, and excluded–for the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. Of a God who cared so desperately for His creation that He Himself became a man to lead humanity into true, lasting freedom.
These slaves listened. They heard “the sound of a far off song” as George MacDonald said, one which would one day “swallow up all their fear and pain, and set them singing.” And sing they did. They received the Gospel with gladness, but rather than allowing its misused teachings to cow their spirits, they subverted the intentions of their masters, morphing the language of Scripture into a vocabulary of resistance, hope for freedom in the hereafter, and even coded directions that could lead them to freedom in the here-and-now. They sang songs of their faith, sang them in front of their white masters, who, from their places of comfort and privilege, “nursing the American dream,” could not envision a freedom beyond esoteric discussions of “freedom from sin.” But their slaves could. They weaponized the words of Scripture–the words their masters were using to further enslave them–into a form of resistance art providing courage and hope.
Nearly 1700 years before the slaves were singing their songs, another oppressed community was turning the words of their enslavement into an art of resistance.
Before we get to them, though, you must know that by the end of the first century, the Roman Empire’s dominance was almost absolute. With territory stretching from Britain to Syria, and from Germany to Egypt, there was no corner of the known world which was not either controlled or influenced by the Caesars.
When Rome decided to bring your country “under its protection,” the first thing it would do would be to send envoys asking for your submission. The benefits, you would be told, would be great. In fact, this was quite literally “good news” (or, as the word is translated today, “Gospel”). The Gospel of Caesar was that you would be brought into the Roman societal structure: many were given full citizenship, even potentially bringing your rulers into the venerated Roman Senate, placing your richest citizens into the moneyed classes, and leaving your poor and your slaves as, well, still most likely poor and enslaved . . . only now as Romans! You would have Roman officials in your country: making and enforcing laws, levying and collecting taxes, and conscripting your men into the all-consuming war machine that was the Roman army. This is because Caesar’s Gospel would not only affect your social, political, and economic standing, it would bring you under the wing of the powerful legions, offering you protection from the barbarians in the lands beyond.
The genius of this system, though, was that it was wrapped up in religious language and ceremony. The first step to being brought into the Roman system and reaping all these benefits was to offer a sacrifice to the statue of the emperor and to confess Caesar as (and I’m being serious) Lord and Savior, as the son of god and the bearer of Good News. For, as the Romans would say, there is no other name under heaven by which you can be saved. The Romans made the brilliant discovery that, if you could control a people’s faith, if you could have their spiritual allegiance to your system, everything else would fall into place. The last thing anyone would want to do was to anger the gods! The result of many countries acquiescing to this message was an ushering in of the Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace”–a time of relative quiet and lack of warfare, when citizens could travel the empire on legion-paved roads with much more freedom and security.
However, if your rulers decided they didn’t want to be ruled by an emperor far away, they would reject Caesar’s offer of Good News, sending the envoys away without making any such confessions or sacrifices. The next thing you could expect would be to see the Roman army marching into your country. If you would not willingly accept the protection of the legions, then those same legions would force you to enter under their “protection.” Of course, if you fought, you would most likely be obliterated, your people sold into slavery, and your country repopulated by other peoples. But if you were smart, and the Roman general was feeling generous, you would hastily accept the emperor’s Good News, this time at sword-point, and the resulting destruction would be minimal. Then you could get on to the business of living under the gracious peace of your lord and savior, Caesar. For the Romans, peace came at the expense of your freedom.
The irony of the pax romana was not lost on people. The Roman historian Tacitus, who lived in this era, called it out for the sham it was. He was credited as saying that the Romans would “plunder, butcher and steal and call it ‘empire’; they would make a desert and call it ‘peace.’” The early Christians were also well aware of the irony. The peace they knew “passed all understanding,” came through faith, and was one of the primary words used to describe the way they were to live with each other. God was described again and again as the “God of Peace.” The Apostle Paul even said that the Kingdom of God was not about eating or drinking, but a matter “of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). And of course, they remembered Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
But how do you not fear? When the early Christians looked upon the Roman world, they did not see anything like the peace they experienced with the risen Christ. Instead, they oppression. They saw class and political repression, and economic disparity on a scale so massive it’d give poor Bernie a stroke. They saw a religious pluralism that was tolerant provided you played by the rules and submitted to the overarching dominance of the empire. And that’s what this was all about: total and absolute dominance. Submit and play along and you’ll survive–maybe even thrive. Dare to see the world differently, and they will crush you.
Make no mistake, the early Christians were feeling crushed. No longer able to hide under the protective wings on Judaism, they were vulnerable, seen as an aberrant threat. So, whether through the insane whims of Nero or the systematic purges of Domitian, the early Jesus communities were at the least viewed with suspicion and at the worst actively persecuted for their faith and practice. Rome may have pretended to be tolerant, even caring, but they were in reality a sly temptress and a sleeping dragon: beguiling the people with intoxicating promises of power and riches, only needing to be awakened in wrath to devour any who would stand against them.
How? How do you stand?
How does one respond to such total, oppressive control? How do those who don’t buy-in resist?
How do those to whom the system brings oppression rather than privilege subvert such an absolutizing message?
How can you stand against those who hold all the cards, whose power is unable to challenged, who use even the gods to keep you in line?
The same way those American slaves did when they sang their songs of freedom! By turning the message of the oppressors into a coded message of resistance for the oppressed. By smiling into your violent master’s face and using their language of total dominance to proclaim the day when their dominance shall fail.
This is the message of the book of Revelation. This is the world into which we will plunge ourselves this year.