Posted by: rogermitchell | September 9, 2011

A love that bears away the cost of empire

My posts on economics at the end of Christendom came to an abrupt halt with the riots in English cities, since when my posts have taken a somewhat different direction. However, as I have since pointed out, these riots, as with the much wider economic shakings, connect to the deep structure of our nation state which is about getting not giving. My post on August 4th just prior to the riots, proposed that this Western obsession with the acquisition of wealth, tracks back to a payment/appeasement model of the atonement. I argued there that the cross is not about payment, but the fulness of gift. As a result quite a discussion began among various visitors to this site. The focus was mainly on the meaning of the words propitiation, atonement, and, by implication, the whole Old Testament sacrifice system. While the subject may seem unduly technical to some, my research indicates that it is crucial to uncovering the deep structure of the West’s ongoing commitment to a capitalist economy as the means to achieve peace and freedom.

As I see it, the way to understand this rightly is to look at it in the light of Jesus’ own testimony. On the conviction that he reveals the nature of God, and that this is the reverse of demanding payment and appeasement, there are three statements in particular that can help us here. John’s testimony to the lamb of God “Behold the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world,” Jesus’ clear preference of mercy over sacrifice “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mat 9:13), and God’s care for sparrows “Are not five sparrows sold for two cents? Yet not one of them is forgotten before God” (Luke 12:6).

I will aim to take these one at a time and explore their implications in the next few posts.

i) the lamb of God
While these were not Jesus’ words, it is clear from the context that he both heard and accepted them. When John’s disciples approached him as a result to ask where he was staying, he simply asked them to come with him and find out for themselves (Jn 1:36-39). There are two possible Old Testament connections. The first is to Isaiah 11:6 “And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, And the leopard will lie down with the young goat, And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; And a little boy will lead them.” The second is to Exodus 12 and the Passover lamb.

The prophetic allusion refers to the ending of aggressive domination, and the Passover lamb to God’s merciful approach to the destructive effects of empire. In the context of captivity in Egypt, the plagues, which culminated in the death of the firstborn, are best understood as God lifting his loving, restraining hand from the inevitable consequences of the Pharaoh’s oppressive power on humanity and creation. Just as Jesus’ own life-laying down loving carried away the fulness of the effects of empire in his day, the Passover lamb was functioning as the means of escape from the destructive effects of empire by the choice of the Passover lamb’s laid down life. This then opened up the way for the Jews to live in the midst of the nations as a demonstration of God’s merciful way out of the consequences of the surrounding domination systems. Similarly the incarnation now points the way for the ecclesia to live lamb-like lives on behalf of the nations, like the heart of God himself.

In this way, as the next post will go on to argue, the sacrifice system that developed among the Jews was meant to place God’s heart of love and mercy towards humanity and the whole of creation at the centre of Israel’s life among the nations. The failure of Israel of old, and now the church after them, to grasp this, is surely God’s greatest tragedy, but nevertheless one which the cross itself embodies and answers.



  1. I really appreciate this Roger and look forward to what is to come. I’ve been meditating on the imperial spirit and how it is expressed in our society, where I work (an undergraduate college) and even my own household. I guess 2 things stand out to me. The drive to continually acquire more, even if there is no right to that resource, even if it belongs to others, and even if it is not needed and will be treated as trash. Yet, there is this drive to always have more of everything, of whatever is out there. And then there is the refusal to share, what is owned is hoarded. And again, that which is owned may well be disregarded and treated as trash, but it is owned and never shared or given away.

    I see this happening at many different scales in society. And it can be a compulsive need to acquire and hoard power as much as a compulsion to get the next material resource and keep it shut up where no one else can benefit from it.

    In an individual this kind of behaviour is now considered a mental illness as it often renders the space where the individual lives, uninhabitable. That seems true on a larger scale. The spirit that drives compulsive acquisition and hoarding of resources and wealth, also has made our habitation, the planet less habitable.

    Somehow we need to really get this sorted out and then pray for the mind of Christ on it all as what we have now, this imperial spirit, is incredibly destructive at all levels and scales of human community.

  2. I’ve been fascinated lately by the rise of thugs and bullies in political life. There seems to come a reward for being the nastiest kind of person in politics. So here in Toronto we have the Ford brothers, one the new mayor and the other a city councillor. They run the city as if it were their personal feudal territory. Their personal style is based on a bombastic threatening of others.

    Then there is the Texas governor turned presidential candidate in the States. He literally swaggers and smirks his way through debates. But his bullying remarks get rewards. When asked if he had lost sleep over the executions (Texas under his Christian governorship has executed about 250 people – more than any other state) of innocent people (at least one was proven innocent and other sentences are under serious dispute). Well no. He had never lost sleep over something so trivial. And here’s the scary part – the right wing, likely mostly confessing Christian crowd, roared in approval.

    Several nights later Ron Paul (a so-called libertarian but not when it comes to women’s reproductive rights) in another debate was wrestling (as the doctor he was before going into Congress) with the individual freedom to not have health care. And who would pay for a young healthy person in crisis without insurance. Before he could answer – that well the community and church (pretty non-existent these days) would step in like 100 years ago, the crowd shouted out that such a fool should be allowed to die. Yet again, rewarding these political styles.

    So rather than sacrifice and humility what we have is the appearance of strength, power gained through harm of others, and the swagger and threatening stance to defend one’s potlical position. And voters appear to like this. Baffles me completely.

    I don’t think Jesus would do very well these days – his polling numbers would be very low.

    I also read a brief history of the rise of neo-liberalism in the UK yesterday. Very interesting. Neo-liberalism appears, to me to be just another way of dressing up greed and rewarding, yet again, that thuggish behaviour. Of course they have their own philosopher, an avowed atheist, Ayan Rand. Yet many so called Christians have adopted her as their own. Very strange. But Rand was not different from the political thugs I described above. Her universe was an extreme social darwinianism, with winners and losers and the losers were out of luck. It was always their fault that they lost anyway. Greed is validated. The thug tactics to win are affirmed.

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