The lure and liability of empire

The Roman aqueduct at Segovia, Spain takes my breath away. Built by Emperor Trajan early in the second century, the aqueduct once brought water from ten miles away. In the last mile, where it crosses a valley into Segovia, the aqueduct is a bridge up to ninety feet high. Its arches have stood two millennia with only gravity holding stones in place. When I asked a taxi driver in Segovia why Trajan put huge resources into such a project, he immediately declared, “orgullo! (pride!)”

No empire, ancient or modern, can long endure without impressing local power brokers in each area it controls. Empires garner support by providing benefits, such as aqueducts or new roads. They offer elites in subject nations opportunity for upward mobility through business, education, or political office. Empires provide such amenities because they want allegiance and resources from client states. Rome extracted huge quantities of copper, lead, zinc, gold, wine, olive oil, fish sauce and other products from Spain.

The Roman empire developed an elaborate system of patron-client relations, with the emperor as chief patron and local rulers (such as Herod) serving as clients. Local rulers in turn had their own clients, and the pattern repeated to include all of society. Persons in patron-client relationships described themselves as “friends.”

The fact that the Roman system permitted upward mobility is evident in Trajan, a Spaniard who rose to become Roman emperor. The aqueduct at Segovia was a way for him to show that being part of the empire brought benefits to Spain. Trajan then helped Rome take maximum advantage of natural resources from his homeland.

Empires burnish their reputation with lofty ideology—such as Pax Romana (“Roman peace”), communism, or democracy. The ideological patina makes people who participate in empire feel good about what they are doing. But the real purpose of empire is to extract resources from foreign nations, and empires commonly compromise any ideals to gain access to resources.

Jesus criticized the Roman imperial system. “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them,” he said, “and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves” (Luke 22). Accusers at Jesus’ trial used patron-client dynamics to manipulate Pilate: “If you release this man,” they warned, “you are no friend of the emperor” (John 19).

Stability brought by the Roman empire allowed the Apostle Paul to travel extensively for the gospel, and he even had plans for mission work in Spain (Romans 15). Paul was cautiously optimistic that the empire could be God’s servant (Romans 13). But after Rome started persecuting Christians and destroyed Jerusalem, John of Patmos could only see the empire as a blasphemous, rampaging beast (Revelation 13).

The current trade war between the United States and China is an example of empires in conflict. Both great powers are cultivating “friends,” rewarding client states, and seeking access to resources and markets. Followers of Jesus must not get caught up in the self-serving ideologies of empire and nativism. Our allegiance is to the global reign of God, never to “my country first.” Jesus said, “Seek first God’s kingdom, and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6).

© 2019  J. Nelson Kraybill ****************************************************************

Interested in learning more about how Christians and Jews related to the Roman empire? See my book, Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation (Brazos, 2010). Also available in Korean and Spanish editions.

Join Audrey Voth Petkau and me for a Journey of Hope tour to Jordan, Palestine and Israel on September 12-23, 2019:  In Jordan we’ll learn about the Israelites’ trek toward the Promised Land as we visit World Heritage site Petra and survey Canaan from Mount Nebo. We’ll see the place at the Jordan River where God parted the waters, and Machaerus Fortress where John the Baptist died.

In Israel/Palestine, we’ll learn about the life and times of Jesus in a replica of first-century Nazareth. We’ll sing carols at Bethlehem, sail on the Sea of Galilee, view Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, visit multiple sites in the Holy City itself, and see Caesarea where Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius. Reflect with others on themes of mission and reconciliation, including justice issues of Israel and Palestine, as we travel and worship together.

A second Journey of Hope tour on June 10-20, 2020 can be paired with Christ at the Checkpoint conference in Bethlehem ( ) and/or a stop in Germany for the Oberammergau Passion Play ( //

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