Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Basiliea Tou Theou

The concept of pacifism in a Christian context raises the concept of "just war," an idea originated by Augustine in his apologia for Christianity, The City of God. Augustine was trying to resolve the conflict between the empire of Rome and the empire of God (the basiliea tou theou). It was that conflict, of course, that led to the crucifixion of Christ and the mocking sign: o basileus ton Ioudaion ("King of the Jews"). Augustine wanted to give Roman Christians the ability to keep one foot in each realm, an idea itself that can be criticized as distinctly un-Christian. "Just war" is part of this concept: that one can be a citizen of two realms. But, as Jesus said, you cannot serve two masters. One of them will demand your loyalty above your obligations to the other, and how then do you choose? Who gives you your life? God, or Caesar? To whom do you give it up, if demand is made?

It is the basiliea tou theou that is the stumbling block: the empire of God that is meant to be all-encompassing. Jesus, and Paul after him, proclaimed a complete alternative to the empires of this world. Israel itself found its identity in a covenant with the God of Abraham, a covenant that only belatedly turned into a kingdom, and when that kingdom was taken away from them for their injustice and greed, it was replaced with a kingdom that could never be taken away.

But one that could be abandoned. And the concept of this basiliea is just as controversial now, as it was in first century Palestine. It could be argued, in fact, that the origin of individuality, of the concept of the individual, began there.

Prior to the emergence of Romanticism, the "modern" concept of the individual was all but unknown. "That solitary individual" to whom Kierkegaard dedicates Purity of Heart is a wholly Romantic ideal, but one founded (consciously, in the case of Rouseeau; less explicitly in the case of Kierkegaard, raised in a church started by a conscience tormented former Augustinian monk) on the concept originated by Augustine, in his attempt to explain his conversion to himself, and to the collapsing Roman empire and the citizens of that empire in which he lived. Krister Stendahl has argued quite persausively that "Augustine may well have been one of the first to express the dilemma of the introspective conscience" (and noting that in this Luther was "a truly Augustinian monk"). Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia, Fortress Press 1976), p. 83. Stendahl's essay is aimed at the interpretation of Paul's letters, but the thesis he employs is applicable here: that what we generally consider human nature is not essentially the same throughout the ages. Some of what we cover with that umbrella term may be immutable, but some of what we consider immutable is certainly highly changeable, and has changed over history, and from culture to culture. The "introspective conscience" is Stendahl's aim, and he links it directly to Augustine:
For Paul had not arrived at his view of the Law [Stendahl is concerned with Romans 7:19] by testing and pondering its effect upon his conscience; it was his grappling with the question about the place of the Gentiles in the Church and in the plan of God, with the problem Jews/Gentiles or Jewish Christians/Gentile Christians, which had driven him to that interpretation of the Law which was to beome his in a unique way.....

Yet it was not until Augustine that the Pauline thought about the Law and Justification was applied in a consistent and grand style to a more general and human problem....His Confessions is the first great document in the history of the introspective conscience. The Augustinian line leads into the Middle Ages and reaches its climax in the penitential struggle of an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, and his interpretation of Paul. (Stendahl, pp. 84-85)
Recognizing this can have a very upsetting effect on one's assumptions about individual actions and the concept of corporate responsibility. Is it even possible to think of oneself as an individual, and yet not think of oneself in terms of an introspective conscience. Stendahl's thesis is that it is not only possible, but that it is precisely how Paul saw himself and the world, and so when he says "Miserable sinner that I am!," it is not a cri de couer or a mea culpa such as we, in a post-Augustinian world, imagine it. No more so than Paul would automatically interpret the act of the prostitute in Luke's anointing story as an outward display of an inward act of conscience. That kind of introspection, which we think so fundamental to "human nature," is not so fundamental at all. It is the result of human thought, of philosophy; of the efforts of a saint of the church.

Which realization makes everything more interesting. So, where, then, do I find my identity? In the introspection of my conscience, my personal place before God? Or in my community, my empire, neighborhood, family, friends? No one, truly, is alone: but our ideal "individuals," be they Thoreau or Byron or Kierkegaard, are all products of Romanticism, and this is the lingering effect of Romanticism, that we still seek to praise the indivdual, be it an action adventure hero or a moral hero, above and apart from any group.

So the basiliea tou theou poses the uncomfortable question: whose side are you on? Is your identity founded in family? "I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man will find enemies under his own roof." (Matthew 10:34-6, REB). Is your identity in the ruler, the country, the empire? "Pay the emperor what belongs to the emperor, and God what belongs to God!" (Matthew 22:10, SV) [note the Greek here is "kaisar," the obvious root for the German word "Kaiser." We are too prone to think of "Caesar" as a personal name, not a title] Or are you a citizen of the basiliea tou theou?

As Arundhati Roy says: "Radical change will not be negotiated by governments." If the bailiea tou theou is not here and now, then the question has no purpose, and the need to live it, see it, even to proclaim it, is pointless. We do not prepare the way of the Lord; we do not usher in the age, we do not negotiate for its presence at some time in the future, when everyone and all governments are ready. God can truly raise children of Abraham from the stones; God doesn't need us to act. But if we are called into the basiliea, if we are at last invited to "Come, buy grain and eat; come, buy wine and milk, not for money, not for a price," surely we should make that invitation to everyone. And if we hear that invitation, how can we accept it if we do not accept the reality, here and now, of that basiliea? And if we accept the reality of that basiliea, and the invitation into that basiliea, how can we then refuse the law, the comands, of that kaisar, the emperor of this empire? Not the command to be holy, but the command to be humble, to be servants, to live as if the first are indeed last, and the last first.

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