This matrix is not entirely dissimilar to our own Pax Americana. How many times have we heard, “We are a Christian nation,” and then have those who have spoken those words rattle the sabers and go to war against an enemy like Iraq? (American combat deaths in Iraq totaled 3,542 and Iraqi civilian deaths totaled at least 116,000 according the UK’s Telegraph…all in search of nonexistent “weapons of mass destruction.” Are we more like Rome or more like Jesus?) The death toll in Iraq suggests victory, but the political instability caused by the war makes victory impossible to claim. Though neither was a “good leader,” Iran’s Ahmadinejad and Iraq’s Saddam kept each other in check. We in the U.S. sense relative peace because we do not live in Kabul or Baghdad or Gaza. But we don’t have true peace, just as the Romans in Italy didn’t have true peace while their legions were being slaughtered (and slaughtering) along the Rhine.
During the Fascist (from the Latin word, fasces, a bundle of bound rods with an ax…see photo: the Nike is carrying them) Era in Italy, Benito Mussolini used the Ara Pacis as an element of propaganda to show his connection with the Roman Empire. It was under his leadership that the Ara Pacis was reassembled. And when Adolf Hitler visited Rome in 1938, Mussolini included the Ara Pacis on the tour for the leader of the Third Reich. (Reich is the German word for empire.)
So, what’s the alternative?
The matrix suggested by the apostle Paul, based on his own Judaism and on following Jesus is markedly different:
First, religion. Then justice. Then peace. (No war and no victory based on military superiority.) It’s the same matrix that the Hebrew prophets tried to instill in the people, against the will of leaders who wanted to adopt a matrix similar to Rome’s. Micah asks, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” The concept of shalom is absolutely central to the kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed, and it is no accident at all that Paul’s opening to authentic letters uses this phrase, which condenses his theology into three words: Grace and peace.
Grace (charis) is an unearned gift and peace for Paul was not the absence of war, but the condition of right relationship with God and humankind based of just action and the wholeness of creation. When I graduated from divinity school, I had some beach stones I collected in Maine inscribed with the Greek word, charis, and on the reverse side, shalom. I gave one to each of my closest friends. (Amazing what gravestone companies will engrave!)
So, I guess the question left for each of us to grapple with is whose team do we want to play for? Which matrix do we want to adopt: Caesar’s of Jesus and Paul’s? Do we want to work toward war and victory as a means of pacification or do we want to work for justice and the road to true peace?