Jesus Versus the Empire: An Interview with Mark Taylor

By John W. Whitehead
October 09, 2006

Mark Lewis Taylor is the Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. His most recent book, Religion, Politics and the Christian Right: Post-9/11 Politics and American Empire, discusses various themes of post-9/11 U.S. culture, including what Professor Taylor deems “the politics of empire and the ways white racism pervade U.S. interests in empire and religious practice within the U.S. and globally.” This new book, he notes, “is about how traditions of prophetic spirit can be embodied as a revolutionary presence in a United States dominated by neo-conservative military planners, corporate wealth and theocratic conservatives of the Christian right.”

In his book The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America, Taylor addressed theologically the issues of the contemporary prison-industrial complex, police brutality and the death penalty. This book won “Best General Interest Award” from the American Theological Association. He is also the author of Remembering Esperanza: A Cultural-Political Theology for North American Praxis (1990), which offered a comprehensive methodology for theologians interested in cultural and political emancipation. He has also edited the works of Tillich in Paul Tillich: Theologian of the Boundaries (1987) and co-edited Reconstructing Christian Theology (1996) about key contemporary issues demanding new types of thinking in theology.

He is national coordinator of “Educators for Mumia Abu-Jamal,” a group of 800 university teachers organizing for a new trial for Abu-Jamal, a journalist on Pennsylvania’s death row since 1982 (www.emajonline.com).

He has also been an activist in the current anti-war movement, in “No More Prisons!” movements and regarding policy issues in Mexico and Latin America. He has numerous essays and columns in professional journals, magazines and newspapers on issues of justice and peace in theology and religion.

Professor Taylor recently took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for oldSpeak.

John Whitehead: In your book The Executed God, you discuss the fact that established Christianity has often abdicated its powers to challenge politically enshrined terror. As you write: “Christianity has long tolerated or made common cause with the terrorizers who build imperial regimes of oppression. This, however, is Christendom’s betrayal of its Jewish teacher, Jesus, one who offered a daily spiritual life—of survival, resistance, and flourishing—to those who suffered indignity and disinheritance in an ethos of empire.” Can you comment?

Mark Taylor: Remembering that Jesus’ gospel was forged in the context of empire and occupation in his time and that it was a gift of life under those conditions is something that is often lost. This is especially so since Christianity is often used to shore up a citizen’s good standing in the republic or in the empire. And if indeed we were talking about being a good citizen of a full and free democratic republic, that might not be such a bad idea. But when a nation’s state is engaged in repression and structures that maximize global suffering, unfortunately, as the U.S. is today, we need to rehear that gospel as a word of life and critique in the present moment.

JW: Do you think Jesus would resist the American empire today?

MT: Yes. But what would that resistance look like? That’s the question about which we need to be imaginative. It probably would not be a resistance that looks like party politics of either the Republican or Democratic variety. Nor would it look like the images many of us have in our head of a political organizer or protester—although all of those might be options deployed. Most of all, I think it would be a creative performative kind of acting up amidst daily life, occasionally coming into contact with organized groups. But when you really strike solidarity with those who are on the underside of empire, sometimes you don’t have a lot of leeway. Thus, you have to get imaginative. You have to be subversive in creative ways, and that’s what we would expect from the politics of Jesus.

JW: You indicate that both Jesus and Paul had a dramaturgical quality about what they did.

MT: By the dramaturgical, I mean that they were able to conjure and play with key terms that were already in public language and public use.

JW: Such as?

MT: Such as the word “gospel.” The word gospel in Greek, euangelion, was not invented by Christians or the writers of the New Testament. It was appropriated by the likes of Paul and the writers of the New Testament from Roman imperial generals who would bring good news from the battlefield as they entered the city triumphantly to report to the emperor what was done. It was supposedly glad tidings about victory on the battlefield. So for Christians to take the term gospel and mean glad tidings in reference to an alternative to the kingdom of the empire and apply it to a kingdom of God was a subversive play. It was an inspiring turnaround. That’s an example of a dramaturgy. It’s a creative, playful seizing and turning of meanings to an alternative use.

JW: The New Testament writers also played on the word “savior.” Didn’t the Roman Emperor see himself as a savior of the world?

MT: Yes. Augustus Caesar, as he is later called, was known as one who brought order to a very disordered state of things. He was referred to as s?t?r. As we look towards Advent and Christmas at this time, it is interesting to recall that when Luke, for example, proclaims Jesus as Savior in the infancy narratives, he is also speaking about one who so named, Savior, was by that name in a position of challenge to the empire and the imperial state of affairs.

JW: Thus, the early Christians were undermining the Roman Empire?

MT: Yes. Any good historian would tell us, however, that Christianity’s relation to the state of things has always been multi-dimensional. Moreover, we need to remember that there are many ways of being subversive to empire that today do not look to many people like subversion—such as resisting in one’s daily life work orders or turning them in alternative directions. Marianne Sawicki in her book Crossing Galilee offers some great detailed analysis about how people were able to resist empire in creative new ways through their daily living.

JW: Christians often cite Romans 13:1-4 as demanding total obedience to the state.

MT: No one biblical passage can undergird our effect of what we need to do today, and that applies especially to our response to state power. Romans 13 must be read in conjunction with Revelation 13 and 18. These passages remind us that state power can become the beast and needs to be resisted. And those who participate in Christ find themselves on the other side from the government which has become the beast. My point is that when dealing with the biblical narratives, we need to exercise discernment and interpretation and wrestle with those passages. Then we need to analyze what’s going on in the present moment in the political context of our time and bring these interpretations together in a creative response to our moment. At best, that’s what Christian thinking does and what theology does. 

JW: Do you think that the American empire tends toward looking like a beast today?

MT: Yes, I do. The hallmark of that may be the continuing rationalization of torture by the Bush Administration. This includes interrogation techniques that are torture, even though the present Bush regime tends to deny that they are torture. Moreover, when our government proposes to set aside or modify Article III of the Geneva Conventions, you have taken a step that is beastly. This is true not only because of what it ends up doing to human bodies that are within our detention but also because of what it does to international law agreements that over many years have been hammered out through hard negotiation and compromises among nations at earlier times.

JW: There is also the problem of internal surveillance of American citizens. In addition, there’s the USA Patriot Act, which allows the government to come into our homes and do searches and not tell us. This undermines the Bill of Rights.

MT: That’s true. It is so important when talking about the distortions of empire that we not just look abroad but that we look internally. 

JW: You write that the apostle Paul spirited away the cross from the theater of terror maintained by Rome. Can you explain?

MT: The cross within Roman politics and culture was a marker of shame, of being a criminal. If you were put to the cross, you were marked as shameful, as criminal, but especially as subversive. And there were thousands of people put to the cross. The cross was actually positioned at many crossroads, and, as New Testament scholar Paula Fredricksen has reminded us, it served as kind of a public service announcement that said, “Act like this person did, and this is how you will end up.”

JW: It was a form of terrorism.

MT: It was a tool to terrorize and control the body politics. But Paul saw in the cross the work and the way-of-being of Jesus as salvific. This was to take the cross, which was meant to serve the empire, and turn it against the empire. Now it became a tool of resistance to it. That is what I mean by spiriting away the cross. I believe that Jesus stole the show as he went to the heart of empire. But he stole the show especially in relationship to the whole movement of God, through the cross Jesus created a new kind of thing in history—released a new potential. 

JW: How did the Romans view the use of the cross by Christians—especially in light of the fact that the early Christians used the cross as a positive symbol instead of a negative one?

MT: They had very great difficulty. The shameful breaking of the body on the cross appeared to be the very antithesis of the Greek and Roman models of health, respectability and citizenship. In a shame-based culture, all of that looked very atrocious to them. How could there be a Savior, a soter, from the realm of the crucified? How could you follow a leader who was among the crucified? To the Romans, it was a contradiction in terms.

JW: You write in The Executed God that the confrontation with the Romans is dramatically presented in the exorcism story in Mark 5:1-21. There the demon was named Legion. Could you talk about this? How did that epitomize the Christian message about the empire?

MT: One of the most obvious things to be seen in this passage is that the demon here is called Legion. Several biblical interpreters note that this is reminiscent of the Roman legion, which was a company of soldiers that were a demonic threat to the health of the subordinated people—in this case, the Jews. For the demons that made up Legion to be cast into swine and then rushed over a cliff and into the waters is reminiscent of the armies in pursuit of the fleeing Hebrews of the Exodus deliverance. Thus, those elements of empire come into play there. The Mark 5 passage is a moment of release for all people feeling oppressed by the demons of the Roman legions and all the oppression that Rome stood for.

JW: The Romans, for example, when they were triumphant, marched into their cities riding white horses and with pomp and circumstance. But Jesus came into Jerusalem riding an ass. Isn’t that drama theater in a way that undermines the whole idea of the triumphant Roman Empire?

MT: Yes. You are exactly right. It is another example of the dramaturgy, seizing upon a ritual performance dear to the heart of empire and then turning against itself—almost making fun of it and parodying it, but in a creative way that points to new insights and new ways of living. At best, it should provoke us to think about what within the rituals of empire today we might seize upon; what images, what notions we might use to act up in the present environment.

JW: Jesus used drama as a subtle way to get a message across. For example, Christ spoke through parables because he couldn’t be too upfront about what he was saying or he would have been eliminated early on. Correct me if I am wrong about  that. But is Jesus using theater to get these messages across? What kind of message was Christ sending when he touched lepers and forgave commoners and people with blemishes? What was he trying to say there?

MT: Each one of those events has to be looked at carefully to see what the writers of the gospels were saying through those stories. Whatever the healing events were, Jesus did not and could not heal all. Thus, the incidents that the gospel writers chose to highlight are very significant. The Mark 5 passage, for example, about imperial occupation and the demon named Legion definitely had a focus of undermining empire.

JW: What was Jesus’ point in reaching out to the outcasts? He gravitated toward the outcasts. Christ worked with women in a way that was really uncommon for his day. What was he trying to say? As you know, the Romans were hierarchical. The Romans wouldn’t reach down and touch a leper. Neither would the Pharisees.
MT: There you go. The healing narratives especially seem to show Jesus crossing the boundaries and the lines established by Roman and temple state systems of his day.  Intrinsic to the temple state system was a vigorous hierarchy, exclusion and marginalization of the sick and the deformed. The idea was that the outcasts should keep their distance or at worse have to pay their way into some kind of nearness to the heart of the body politic. Jesus crossed those lines. He touched those people. He even implied that the kingdom was for such as those. This was especially scandalous when you had both Roman and temple state systems saying otherwise.

JW: Would it be scandalous today as well? One of the most watched Christian networks is the Trinity Broadcasting Network, which promotes the prosperity gospel. It is as if these people are sitting in gold enshrined rooms as they supposedly preach the gospel of Christ. Many church services look very similar. Wouldn’t crossing the barriers like Jesus did be as revolutionary in most of the churches in America today? Christ reached down and helped the poor. But I have asked people, “Do you invite the homeless to your church?” They start stumbling. They don’t know what to say.

MT: Christians need to strike solidarity with the poor and really involve them in our work and in our ministry. We also need to show ourselves physically identified with that work in the public media, as opposed to showing ourselves as Christians sitting on gold thrones. We should be seen working side by side with the poor. I receive newspapers from Christian groups that are fighting systems of war and standing for peace. They’re protesting. They’re lying down in front of trucks. To show Christians in those kinds of positions of costly solidaristic action is what we need to do more of. And the prosperity gospel is one of the reigning alternatives that I believe we need to focus our critique on today.

JW: Most mainstream evangelical Christians have not only identified with money, they are very materialistic. Most of the evangelical ministries with which I have worked place their first emphasis on fundraising. For example, an evangelical fundraising group told me that it hurts fundraising if “you dare criticize George Bush.” And then there are many evangelical groups that align themselves with the government of the day which, in many instances, contradicts what Christ stood for in the Gospels.

MT: One of the challenges most acute for Christians today is to resist idolatry of the nation. Not only idolatry that celebrates class position and wealth but an idolatry of the nation. Indeed, nationalism has rarely been stronger than it is today in the U.S. Thus, Christians are being put to the test today. Is their gospel one that is independent from the visions of nation and empire building or not? The power of Jesus is one that enables us to critique the nation and the empire. Unfortunately, that gospel is being sacrificed and squandered by Christians who have cozied up to power and wealth. So there are some hard choices before us.

JW: You write: “Powerful groups in our society thus invest heavily to create media and other cultural mechanisms of control, which often work so effectively that expressive measures against the body are unnecessary…. Dominant powers take aim at our minds, yes, but also at our sphincter muscles. They seek to register state terror in our gut.” What do you mean here?

MT: I mean that the powers of the state are often deployed to create fear. 

JW: Even in the United States?

MT: Even in the United States.

JW: Give me an example.

MT: I was driving through the Bronx a couple of years ago with a friend and approached an intersection. All of a sudden, six squad cars came from all directions and brought all other traffic in that intersection to a stop. It turned out that one guy driving through the intersection had run a red light. This was of no great consequence for that man. He was apprehended. But everyone else there saw a demonstration of police power.  Neighborhoods in our cities are exposed to drug raids in the middle of the night that are technically not necessary in order to apprehend someone. But such raids have the function of keeping the entire neighborhood in a state of lockdown and in a state of fear.  Thomas Hobbes, the great author of Leviathan, said that when it comes to government, fear is the emotion to be reckoned with. And the state will take aim at exploiting that fear. We see a Bush regime today that has exploited it very well with its terror alerts and its color codes. Finally, some people are starting to wise up and see that this has been a very manipulative practice and that it is not rooted in real threats as the Bush regime has said.  But fear is so powerful. It’s amazing how it works. I had one journalist ask me, “Isn’t there a Bible passage about perfect love casting out fear?” Indeed there is. It would be interesting to know if the love we claim to have in Jesus that is taught in the Gospels is strong enough to break the chains of fear that this regime would place upon us.

JW: But you are criticizing George W. Bush. Many evangelicals believe Bush is a fine Christian man. So how can you do that? All Bush is trying to do as a Christian is to protect America. 

MT: First, what do you mean by a Christian? With what kind of gospel? What kind of understanding of the Bible are you talking about? And what does it mean to be living in the way of Jesus? That kind of way I do not see in George Bush. Nor do I see him walking in that way. Second, as to this idea of protecting America, that is where we need to emphasize the Gospel’s independence from any nation’s fate. In fact, the Gospel salvation directs us to the Lord of all creation, not to the president of any nation or any prime minister or any leader. And our perspective is forged by that God, and it is not just out of an interest to protect one of the nations. 

JW: Again, let me quote you: “When Christians, on behalf of or as oppressed peoples, find no option other than taking up arms (and I do not rule out the possibility in a world already structured by institutionalized violence), we will not realize even our own aspirations for change apart from some imaginative art form, some dramatic and aesthetic gesture that points toward the better way of nonviolence in human interaction.” What are you saying here?

MT: I am an advocate of nonviolence. I have ruled out violence for myself. Both Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi did as well. That said, we have to locate our nonviolent witness close to the struggles of those who—for whatever failure or insight or combination thereof—feel it necessary to pursue a way of violent resistance. We are fighting a very violent regime.

JW: Are you talking about the United States?

MT: I am talking about the United States and the powers the United States has made common cause with transnationally—that is, the transnational global classes of wealth. As such, our nonviolent resistance cannot be a passive mode of hiding from confrontation. It has to be out in the open in a way that confronts and speaks truth to power with a kind of nonviolent militancy. King used the phrase “nonviolent direct action” to stress that this was not a mode of passivity. And when that is done, we will often find ourselves alongside or near to the same track of resistance as some of those who advocate violence as a mode of resistance. It is important to resist that, too. I believe in nonviolence. However, at some points we are going to find ourselves close to those groups that use violence. This is because we simply oppose the standing order of things. Of course, the powerful will often say there is no difference between us and those groups, which, of course, is not true. But that is one of the things that is going to come our way. King, Gandhi and Oscar Romero found this to be true, even as Romero advocated non-violence in the context of El Salvador of the 1970s.

JW: You also write: “Rarely, however, have the adversarial practices of U.S. churches been the kind that characterized that of Jesus and Paul, that is, vibrant with a critique of empire, with a witness to a way of living and being that are alternatives to the routines of imperial practices. To the contrary, the adversarial stances of most churches have been accommodated to fit within the purview of standing political powers.” Please comment.

MT: Unfortunately, I believe this to be the case. But it is not as if there never have been resistant churches with adversarial practices for life. There have been. But they have been often in an underground, submerged tradition. And as history is written by the winners and the powerful, we forget that there have been Christians as resistant subcultures and as resistant practitioners working with other religious faiths. This includes people of no faith who sometimes are nevertheless people of conscience. Those traditions are there. In my most recent book, Religion, Politics, and the Christian Right, I call it the tradition of prophetic spirit.

JW: Some who have read your writings comment that you are a “Christian Marxist.” Is this true?

MT: It’s a way of dismissing my work. But at the same time, it assumes that Marx had nothing to say. I don’t take it as an insult necessarily to be called a Marxist. However, any real Marxist looking at my work would say that I’m not Marxist. I don’t use the categories of Marx significantly. I am Marxist only in the sense that Marx had some insights he gained from the book of Acts and Luke 4, which concern the common ownership of things and sharing and practicing love in community. If that’s Marxism, so be it. I don’t have any idea of the vanguard and the proletariat operative. There is nothing of dictatorship of the proletariat in my work. I don’t have any place for it. Thus, this is a kind of dismissal of my work. It is also a superficial dismissal of the relevance of the politics of resistance at the heart of our faith. Almost anyone who says there is a need to challenge the present political order of things can easily be dismissed as a Marxist.

JW: Was Jesus a Republican, a Libertarian or a Democrat?

MT: None of the above. Jesus was outside of all those politics. Jesus leads us to create another kind of political space in this country. It is a political space, which is characterized by diverse movement of people—not only in resistance—but seeking to create communities that are real alternatives to those given us by the imperial powers and by the party politicians. Those movements will then have to enter into negotiations with one another. I am thinking of movements among the poor in our cities, among displaced farm workers, immigrants in this country, the imprisoned and their families and children, veterans of the wars being fought abroad—all of these who are being organized to give life through a loose network of organizations. Extra-parliamentary, these movements are sometimes called. All of these are the site and the space where I see political work needing to be done. It is also where I would see the spirit of Jesus to be abiding incarnate in the world today.