Religion figures heavily in today’s politics. Every day, fundamentalist Jews murder Palestinians, fundamentalist Muslims murder other Muslims, and fundamentalist Christians help provide a cover for the most ruthless empire in history. How can it be that each of them has “God on their side?”
Internationally respected theologian Dr. Joerg Rieger of Southern Methodist University in Dallas has written a thorough review of history’s great interpreters of Christianity in order to probe its relationship with the justification of empire.
It is undoubtedly true that the empire-builders of Christendom, from Constantine to George W. Bush, have found biblical ways to justify their depredations.
The great American labor leader Eugene Victor Debs explained in 1922: “But of course war made by the ruling class, proclaimed by its politicians, must be blessed by its priests. Every preacher in Christendom howled for the world war and shrieked for blood with now and then a rare exception who was driven from his pulpit in disgrace if not sent to the penitentiary to expiate his crime.”
Debs continued: “How many of these rampant warriors of the cloth, these pious followers of the lowly and gentle Jesus who turned their pulpits into filthy sties of the profiteering pirates and screamed for war and blood — how many of these Christian clergymen who betrayed the Prince of Peace they profess to worship had their own legs torn off, their own eyes gouged out, their own bowels ripped from their bodies?”
Rieger, author and editor of several important theological works, finds room for additional interpretations of the great historical works justifying empire. When religion is used to justify empire, he says, it never quite fits the facts, meaning and importance of the life of Jesus. Religious writings have been misinterpreted, either erroneously or deliberately. Rieger isn’t just arguing — he goes deep into theological thought and Christian history to make his point.
It may be true that Saint Paul wrote that slaves must obey their masters, but Rieger goes deeper into Paul’s writings and concludes: “God in Christ is a different kind of lord who is not in solidarity with the powerful but in solidarity with the lowly.”
In discussions of other theological writings, Rieger reveals that concepts such as “faith-based initiatives” and “church asylum” are not new but very old. In the latter parts of his book, he takes on “modernist” or “liberal” theologies that continue to justify imperialism by ignoring it.
In his home area, Dr. Rieger and his family are known for much more than his books, classes and public presentations on theology. They are often on picket lines and marches for peace and justice issues. Despite the careful scholarship of his book, Rieger is no “ivory tower” thinker, but one who preaches and practices with equal enthusiasm.
American activists would do well to pay more attention to Christianity. By abandoning the field to the fanatics and political opportunists like the Bushites, they leave the enemies of human emancipation powerfully armed. In response to the pious murderers, we need more than amusing slogans like, “Whom would Jesus bomb?”
Christ & Empire: from Paul to Post-colonial Times
By Joerg Rieger
Fortress Press, 2007
Softcover, 334 pp., $20