Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

A Brief Bibliography on Christianity vs. Empire

Key: Items marked with an asterisk (” *”) are introductory or for beginners in these fields of study.  Those marked with the number sign (“#”) are of intermediate difficulty.  Items marked with a plus sign (“+”) are more difficult or presume background knowledge in biblical studies, theology, and/or political theory.

The theme of “empire” has become widespread in recent biblical and theological studies, as well as recent political studies.  Political theorists debate whether or not the U.S. is an empire (remember that Rome was called an empire in its colonies long before that language was used back in Italy, where the trappings of the earlier republic were kept for some time), whether globalized capitalism forms a new kind of empire, and related matters.  For brevity’s sake, I am including only biblical and theological works, although they may reflect on contemporary issues.  In general, the anti-imperialist tone of the biblical writings has become newly emphasized in these studies.

#Avram, Wes, ed., Anxious About Empire:  Theological Essays on the New Global Realities. Brazos, 2004.  These are collected papers from a conference held in light of the unveiling of the “Bush Doctrine” in 2002 which proclaimed that the U.S. would tolerate no military or economic rivals and would launch “preemptive wars” against any and all perceived threats.  Most of the contributors are quite critical of this doctrine, but political ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain of the University of Chicago Divinity School, once a liberal just war theorist, has become a vocal apologist for the Bush administration and the “war on terrorism.”


*Carter, Warren.  The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide.  Abingdon Press, 2006.  This is an excellent place to begin exploring the recent biblical works on this theme.


#___________. Matthew and Empire:  Initial Explorations. Trinity Press International, 2001.


+Cassidy, Richard J.  Christians and Roman Rule in the New Testament: New Perspectives.  Crossroad, 2001.  A good introduction from a brilliant Catholic New Testament scholar who is also a peace and justice activist.


+___________.  Jesus, Politics, and Society:  A Study of Luke’s Gospel.  Orbis Books, 1978.


#____________.  John’s Gospel in New Perspective:  Christology and the Realities of Roman Power.  Orbis Books, 1992.


*____________.  Society and Politics in the Acts of the Apostles.  Orbis Books, 1987.


*Crossan, John Dominic.  God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now.  HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.  A popular-level book with rather sweeping conclusions, some of which may outrun the exegetical evidence.


#Crossan, John Dominic and Jonathan L. Reed.  In Search of Paul:  How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom:  A New Vision of Paul’s Words and World.  HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.


#Cullmann, Oscar (1902-1999).  The State in the New Testament.  Scribner’s, 1956.  Contrasts the vision of the state as “God’s instrument to you for good” in Romans 13 with the vision of the state as demonic “beast from the sea” in Revelation 13 and says that discernment as to when the state is more in line with Romans 13 or Revelation 13 is a major Christian task.


+Griffith, Lee.  The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God. Eerdmans, 2002. This is a difficult, but very important book. Griffith had already completed much of the book prior to 9/11. That terrorist attack and the U.S. response simply reinforced most of these conclusions.


*Howard-Brook, Wes and Anthony Gwyer,  Unveiling Empire:  Reading Revelation Then and Now.  Orbis Books, 1999.  This is a serious study of the Book of Revelation, but written in the easy-to-read style of all of Howard-Brook’s works.


*Howard-Brook, Wes and Sharon Ringe, eds.  The New Testament:  Introducing the Way of Discipleship.  Orbis Books, 2002.  This is an excellent introduction to the New Testament from biblical scholars committed to radical discipleship and nonviolence.  Two chapters deal especially with our theme:  “Paul’s Letters:  God’s Justice Against Empire,” by Neil Elliott and “Revelation: Claiming the Victory Jesus Won Over Empire” by Wes Howard-Brook.


#Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder.  Fortress Press, 2003.  Glen Stassen warns that some of Horsley’s biblical exegesis in this book doesn’t seem very careful.  What is certain is that Horsley has changed his mind considerably since his earlier work, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence. Harper & Row,  1987.  In that earlier work, Horsley argued that Jesus dealt almost exclusively with Palestinian village society and that his teachings on nonviolence and enemy love did not address the question of Rome.  Horsley has had a rather large change of heart in this regard.


*____________, ed. . Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society. Trinity Press International, 1997.


*Horsley, Richard A. and Neil Asher Silberman.  The Message and the Kingdom:  How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World.  Putnam, 1997.


+Horsley, Richard A., ed., Paul and Politics:  Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation: Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl.  Trinity Press International, 2000.  Includes several scholarly essays on the theme of empire.


+____________., ed.  Paul and the Roman Imperial Order. Trinity Press International, 2004.  A collection of very deep scholarly essays.


#Keller, Catherine.  God and Power:  Counter-Apocalyptic Journeys.  Fortress, 2005. Keller is a feminist historical theologian who has co-written and co-edited works with the more famous Rosemary Radford Ruether.  While I share her negative attitude toward the normal idea of apocalyptic writings, I argue that the only biblical examples, Daniel and Revelation, use the genre of apocalypse to subvert the usual expectations.  I would not want to be “counter-apocalyptic” in the sense of counter-Daniel or counter-Revelation.


*Laarman, Peter, ed.  Getting on Message: Challenging the Religious Right from the Heart of the Gospel.  Beacon Press, 2006.  See the chapter, “Easter Faith and Empire: Recovering the Prophetic Tradition on the Emmaus Road.” by Ched Myers.


# Northcutt, Michael B. An Angel Directs the Storm:  Apocalyptic Religion and American Empire.  I. B. Taurus, 2004.


+Phillips, Kevin P.  American Theocracy: The Perils and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century.  Viking, 2006.  The author is a former political strategist for the U.S. Republican party who has become alarmed at the direction of his party and the nation.


+Sugirtharajah, R.S.  The Bible and Empire: Postcolonial Explorations.  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  A difficult, but rewarding, study from the viewpoint of a liberation theologian from India.


+Stringfellow, William (1928-1985).  Conscience and Obedience:  The Politics of Romans 13 and Revelation 13 in Light of the Second Coming.  Word Books, 1977.  A popularization of the work of Oscar Cullman on the state and application to the U.S. that Stringfellow knew in the ’60s and ’70s.


#Taylor, Mark Lewis.  Religion, Politics, and the Christian Right:  Post-9/11 Powers and American Empire.  Fortress Press, 2005. Very important reflections from a contemporary theologian. Medium difficulty.


+Thompson, Leonard.  The Book of Revelation:  Apocalypse and Empire.  Oxford University Press, 1990.  Difficult, but rewarding reading.


+Wengst, Klaus K.  The Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ.  Fortress, 1987.  This is an important and very careful study of the contrast between the kind of peacemaking that Jesus taught and the “peace through strength” policies of empire, whether Rome’s or Napolean’s or Britain’s, or the Soviet Union’s,  or the de facto “empire of bases” of the contemporary USA. 


April 13, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Biblical exegesis, books, empire | 5 Comments

Book Notice: Peace to War

I love people and movements who break stereotypes.  The stereotype that people have about Pentecostals (and Charismatics) is that they are always ignorant fundamentalists, racist, sexist, heterosexist, and extremely militaristic.  Well, it’s a rare Pentacostal who is pro-GLBT (those I’ve know about have had to leave for other Christian communities) , but that could be said about MANY Christian denominations or faith traditions.  But the other stereotypes, while having some basis on the current U.S. scene, are absolutely false about early Pentecostal history.  During the early days of the movement, Pentecostals were strong for racial justice and reconciliation (even though this was at the height of Jim Crow segregation). They also had many women ministers during a period when few mainline denominations did (although they still preached male “headship” in the home).  And most early Pentecostals were PACIFISTS.  

That heritage has been buried, its true, but younger Pentecostals are trying to recover it. So, even though I am not a Pentecostal (I might be considered a semi-charismatic Baptist!), I cheer such efforts.  Friday, my copy of Peace to War: Shifting Allegiances in the Assemblies of God arrived.  This book by my friend, Paul Alexander (co-founder of the Pentecostal Charismatic Peace Fellowship), is a revision and popularization of his Ph.D. dissertation (at, of all places, Baylor University!). My mentor, Glen H. Stassen, wrote the forward.  I cannot wait to finally read this important work.

It builds on the earlier book by Jay Beaman, Pentecostal Pacifism:  The Origin, Development, and Rejection of Pacific Belief Among the Pentecostals.  The forward to that work is by the late Mennonite John Howard Yoder, another of my mentors. 

I also recommend, Proclaim Peace: Christian Pacifism from Unexpected Quarters, ed. Theron Schlabach and Richard Hughes, which includes 3 chapters on Pentecostal pacifism, chapters on the Churches of Christ (one section of the Stone-Campbell movement), the Church of God, Adventism, Mormonism, Liberal Christian pacifism between the World Wars, Methodist COs during Vietnam, Catholic pacifism and the seduction of Reformed Just War theorists into blind Christian nationalists. 

All of this reinforces my claim that Christian pacifism is not, per se, a theologically liberal position.  Sure, many Christian pacifists have been theological liberals or political liberals.  But many more have been theologically conservative and either politically conservative or apolitical.  Christian pacifism (or, as I prefer to say, Gospel Nonviolence) is simply biblically faithful and while not every theology will support it  (some definitely will NOT), several different theological approaches do yield strong pacifists.

April 13, 2009 Posted by | church history, discipleship, pacifism, theology | 22 Comments

Critical Variables in Moral Discernment

 I promised an April series on the morality of abolishing the death penalty.  I intend to follow through with that promise.  But I have noticed in comments from our various discussions a need to discuss more the way in which people make moral judgments or come to moral convictions.  Below you will see what I can reproduce of a chart first created by my teacher, Glen H. Stassen.  The full chart should have arrows from each box toward every other box (because every dimension influences the others), an arro w from the whole chart sticking out to the right showing the particular moral decision or conviction or conclusion, and a “feedback loop” of an arrow from that particular outcome back into the whole process, again.  I will discuss each element of each dimension in a series of posts.

Perception:  Way of Seeing

Authority: Locus, Degree


Threat: Nature, Degree


Social Change:  Acceptable or not; speed; acceptable allies; method(s)



Integrity of Information:  Open or not; manipulative or not




Style of  Reasoning


Utilitarian or Deontological


Virtues, Practices,  Rules

Loyalties, Interests, Passions

Friends, Mentors, Models




Community Loyalties


Ultimate Loyalty




Basic Convictions


God and Human Nature


Justification & Sanctification

(Forgiveness & Discipleship)


Love and Justice


Mission of the Church in the World


Now, each of the four large boxes are  key dimensions in the formation of moral character and the making of moral judgements.  The top left box relates to moral perception: the elements in that box are the  critical variables that shape how we perceive the moral world.  The top right box relates to the mode or style of moral reasoning. In many ethics textbooks or discussions, this is the only dimension covered. But humans are more than cold intellects and more goes into our moral character and judgments than just our style of reasoning.

The bottom left box details our loyalties, interests, and passions.  These affect our moral character and judgment far more than most of us believe.  Take, as an example, the debate over abortion.  People do not just follow logical reasoning processes.  One has a commitment to a child with severe handicaps and sees any abortion based on fetal defects detected prenatally as an attack on the worth of that child (and on their care and loyalty).  Another has a sister who was raped and chose a “morning after” emergency contraception and reacts to any bill that would make abortions harder for rape or incest victims as an attack on his sister’s mental, physical, and spiritual health.  (One reason I have had a harder time with the issue of abortion than other  issuess is that I have complex loyalties on both “sides” of the debate.)  Notice that this is not mechanical: Not everyone loyal to a rape victim or a child with physical handicaps automatically comes out in the same place on abortion, for instance.  But to deny that these loyalties, interests, and passions influence our moral judgments is to deny reality.

Finally, the bottom right box depicts the critical variables among our basic convictions or our “ground of meaning beliefs,” those things that we do not usually argue for, but argue  FROM.  Now, in this chart the critical variables are labelled for believing Christians.  But if one holds to another faith or to a non-theistic moral philosophy there are analogous convictions that shape your basic moral character, too–and I will try to show that as we wade through this series.

Now, while walking us through this diagram, step-by-step, I may use particular moral debates as illustrations, as I already did with abortion and loyalties.  During this series, that’s all these are: illustrations.  Please do not attempt to sidetrack discussion in the comments to a debate over those particular moral issues.  That needs to be saved for another time.  This discussion is about understanding better how we live and think morally and why we not only disagree, but often seem to talk past each other on particular moral debates.  Feel free to use your own illustrations or refer to mine in discussion, but let’s keep the focus on this question, okay?

Now, why are these elements called “critical variables.”  A variable is an element that if modified or changed affects the outcome.  Think of x or y in an algebra problem: change the value of x or y and you change the outcome.  So, for instance, we have far more basic convictions or “ground of meaning” beliefs than the ones listed (even for Christians). But these are the ones that Stassen, in investigating the massive literature, found were critical, i.e. changes in them led to greatly different outcomes.

I have found this chart to be a very useful tool in analyzing not only my own moral beliefs, discernments, changes, but also those of others.  When I listen to a sermon on a moral topic (e.g., war) or read an op-ed on a matter of public moral debate (e.g., immigration), I ask myself  questions like “What kind of moral reasoning is the author using? Deontological or utilitarian?  Or is the author arguing for a particular group to engage in particular practices that  form particular virtues and, if so, why these and not others?  Is the author arguing on a rules level or principles level, etc? What interests or loyalties are discernable (or do I know based on other information about the author)? Where is the threat as this author perceives it?

This is a deeper analysis than just asking, Did the author make a logical error (although that is not unimportant)? And, yes, sometimes it is easier to see these things in others than in oneself. I  have had others point out to me how a particular variable was affecting my views  on a particular moral issue in ways I had not seen.  Sometimes, that leads to rethinking and, maybe, changed views.

I hope this series will prove useful.  Next time we will begin with the bottom right box: the basic convictions dimension.  (I start here because, in the classroom, I found that beginning anywhere else is not helpful. The class keeps wanting to discuss  this box first.)

Note: When finished, this series will be indexed and filed under the popular  series page, as will the series on the death penalty which follows it. If you are a new reader to this blog, I encourage you to peruse that page for interesting past discussions.

April 13, 2009 Posted by | ethics, moral discernment, theology | 8 Comments