Originally published in Bible Review. Reproduced by permission of the author.
How can we gain a biblical understanding of the social and political events of our day?
How should we speak of God? Theologians have struggled for years with this question, wondering whether God should be described metaphorically, literally or, perhaps, some other way altogether. In recent weeks, we have been faced with a more urgent and ugly task: What language should be used to describe the events of September 11? And what can be said about the response being taken by America and Britain, with wide support elsewhere?
The questions may be related, as well as the answers. As theologians turn to the Bible to find words for discussing God, so should we turn to it regarding issues of violence, murder, justice and retaliation.
Many generations of Christians, and still more of Jews, have read the Bible in a personal way, as a source of spiritual life, comfort, challenge and hope. But we have not always reflected adequately on how to read the Bible in terms of the social and political events of our day. In this century, liberation theology has often given us a rather superficial Marxist view of the world; at the opposite end of the spectrum, popular paperbacks attempt to find biblical “predictions” of contemporary events as evidence of an end-time program. It is easy to dismiss both readings. But we are then left with little help from the Bible, except for a few general principles, such as Jesus’ welcome of outcasts, which are pulled out to encourage some social programs and to oppose others. This is hardly a strong enough basis on which to build a biblical understanding of the awful events of recent months.
Once we realize, however, just how much of the Bible was written under the shadow of pagan empire, we may find more robust, if more deeply challenging, ways forward.
Beginning in Genesis, we read of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), whose builders arrogantly imagined they had united the world under their rule. God stops work on the tower by scattering the builders across the earth. In its place, God calls Abraham to start the family of faith through whom the nations would be blessed in God’s time and manner rather than by their own arrogance (Genesis 12:1-3).
Exodus speaks of the mighty nation of Egypt enslaving the Israelite people, and of God setting them free in a great, complex act of liberation.
Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel speak of Babylon not only as a sort of rebuke to Israel’s idolatry, but also as a pagan empire that would be challenged and overthrown by God. This will not occur despite the sufferings of Israel but, strangely, through and even by means of them (Isaiah 53). Isaiah describes God crying and panting like a woman in labor, so that not only the chosen people but all creation will be redeemed (Isaiah 42:14-16); God is to Israel as a mother to her children (Isaiah 46:3-4).
To face the challenges of world empire, Paul and the other New Testament writers went back, of course, to the Hebrew and Aramaic scriptures. There they found, in the Psalms and in books like Isaiah and Daniel, a language in which to speak of God’s rule coming to birth over the might of paganism.
Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God, and dies in the belief that his own fate will be instrumental in its inauguration. And Paul, as I and others have argued, spoke of the gospel of Lord Jesus confronting the “gospel” of Lord Caesar. Every knee will bow at the name of Jesus, not Caesar (Philippians 2:10), because God has promised to put the world to rights. The exposition of “God’s righteousness” reaches a climax in Romans 8, where Paul speaks of the world, the church and the Spirit of God all groaning together in the labor pains that herald the birth of God’s new world (Romans 8:22-27).
But how do we apply such passages and ideas to today’s events?
The overall theme of all these passages is the sovereignty of God. Israel in exile needed to know that its God was still sovereign over the kingdoms of the world. The empire of Babylon and its powerful gods were as nothing before the Lord of heaven and earth. But this sovereignty is not exercised through displays of naked power and aggression. God works at the heart of the world’s pain, of Israel’s pain, by the painful bringing to birth of the new world that will be born from the old. Paul, writing to the tiny church that faced the might and pomp of Caesar and Rome, gives the same assurance. The justice, peace and security that Rome offered its citizens is far outweighed by the justice, peace, joy and hope that God offers those in Christ. But this promise, so far from removing the church from the possibility of suffering, actually increases its likelihood, as the kingdoms of the world clash with the nascent kingdom of God.
Several of the passages cited above describe God as a mother or as a woman suffering from labor pains. As theologians of our generation have struggled to find appropriate language for describing and discussing God, they have turned time and again to these (and other) female images of God. These same images may be fruitful in our reflections on how to speak of the sudden sharp pain that has come upon America, and by extension on the whole western world.
This is the biblical framework for considering God and Empire, and God’s way of bringing the world through suffering to hope. The questions then faced by any Christian (or, I suggest, any Jew) when contemplating the nervous dawn of the 21st century are these: Where today do we see the new Babylon, the new Rome? Where today is the world suffering as a result of contemporary imperialism? How can today’s Job be comforted appropriately, not with the spurious “comfort” of those eager to point out his fault but with a fresh vision of the justice of God? And where today can people of faith and good will work together so that through this suffering there may be born a world of genuine justice and hope for all, not just for some?
Nothing in the Bible suggests that this new world will come in all its fullness simply through human work in the present age. But nothing suggests that we cannot bring real anticipations and foretastes of that fulfillment even during the present time. One of the critical questions we now face is whether the action we take in response to atrocity falls within that category.
 Study of how this works out in Paul is still in its comparative infancy, though exciting developments are starting to happen. See, for example, Richard A. Horsley, ed., Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997); and Horsley, ed., Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation (Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl) (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000). See too, from a very different standpoint, Bruno Blumenfeld, The Political Paul: Justice, Democracy and Kingship in a Hellenistic Framework, JSNT Supplement Series 210 (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001).
 On this, see N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), ch. 12.
 See note 1.