Love or Empire

Over two thousand years ago, Julius Caesar, ignoring the directives of the Roman Senate, crossed the Rubicon, defeated his rivals, and inaugurated one of the most powerful periods in Roman history.

A few decades after him, a baby was born in that part of the Roman Empire known today as Israel. Born of relatively unknown parents, this baby could have been just another of the thousands of babies born within the ambit of the Empire. But the visit of three kings from the East, among others, indicated that this baby boy was not an ordinary infant. And true enough, this baby, Jesus Christ, grew up and was heralded as the long awaited Savior of the Jews.

However, certain segments of the Jews became increasingly disappointed with Christ. Instead of behaving like the Messiah they had expected, Christ preached Love as the supreme commandment, Love, not political power and dominance. Instead of organizing against the Roman Empire, Christ was teaching the importance of overcoming the past practice of a “tooth for a tooth” or “an eye for an eye”. Exasperated, they finally convinced their Roman overlords to torture and crucify Christ. In their eyes, Christ, among others, failed to fulfill their hopes of a Jewish King that would remove them from the yoke of the Roman Empire.

Under ordinary circumstances, that would have been the end of the story. But this was not an ordinary human being. St. John the Evangelist characterizes Christ as the Logos, as Divine, thru whom all things were created. The followers of Christ eventually spread to many countries of the world. In the third century AD, Christianity spiritually overpowered the Roman Empire and became the official religion of Rome. Today, Christianity is the largest religion in the world and the dominant force of Western civilization and its global satellite nations.

In Christian cultures around the world, like most of the Philippines, this season of Christmas, if not engulfed in commercialism, is the occasion to reflect on the world historical meaning of the coming of the Christ to earth existence. This reflection is urgent today especially in the context of our current global situation which calls for a close examination of lessons that can be gleaned from this historical struggle between Love and Empire.

On September 17, 2002 a modern-day Caesar crossed the modern-day equivalent of the Rubicon. His name is George W. Bush. Using 9/11 as a pretext, he inaugurated his doctrine of the United States of America as a global empire. In the process, Bush formally inaugurated the most powerful empire that the world has even seen.

How should human beings who truly love their freedom and who seek to uphold their highest aspirations respond to this challenge?

Christ, as a Divine Being, could have ushered in His heavenly forces to destroy the Empire. This much He already hinted in his response to the questions of Pontius Pilate. But He did not succumb to this temptation which He had already overcome in his “40-day” sojourn in the desert. Even from the very beginning, He chose to enter earth existence in very humble circumstances, away from the pomp, power, and opulent wealth of Rome. Yet Christ unleashed a spiritual force that eventually overcame and outlasted the Roman Empire.

There are a number of key principles and lessons that we can derive from this classic example of how Love can overcome Empire. And it is certain that others can point to more principles. And while it is important to point out that Christ’s mission goes beyond just overcoming Empires, it is important to point to three key lessons that stand out if we wish to deal with the global Empire that has emerged in our time.

First, Christ chose the hearts and minds of the people as the arena of struggle, not the military battlefield nor the labyrinths of the Roman political system. He preached a gospel of spiritual, individual, and social transformation. He launched a spiritual-cultural revolution because He knew that the heart of the revolution was the revolution of the heart. He knew that, ultimately, all Empires can only last when they are seen as legitimate and justified in the minds and hearts of its subjects. So to win a spiritual battle inside was to ultimately subvert the Empire.

Second, Christ knew that this spiritual battle will not be won instantaneously. He knew that it will take time. He was very well aware that Jewish history was littered with disasters caused by the backsliding of the Jewish people against their own highest ideals. So He inaugurated a task without expecting immediate spectacular results.

Third, Christ chose to focus His time and energy on a few key disciples who were determined to spread His message of Love and Peace. Many may wish, deep in their hearts, to be involved in the struggle against the Empire. But there are all kinds of obstacles that come and hinder the translation of intention into reality. Only a few will display that kind of commitment that can truly change the world. The new world will be built upon these individuals who will truly go out of their way and inconvenience themselves and their day-to-day life to create a better world.

This is not to argue for elitism. This is simply to point the day-to-day realities that social movements face, realities connected with fiery enthusiasm that quickly fades away into inaction and a stream of excuses. Purveyors of false hopes and enthusiasms can easily deplete the time and resources of those who have stayed the course amidst all challenges.

Especially this time of Christmas, we can choose one of two alternatives. We can choose to flow with what “normal” people do: lots of shopping, parties, endless gossip, or, in short, irrelevance. Or we can choose to spend our time reflecting on what we can learn from the life of Christ. It is within our power to choose irrelevance or reflection.

For the sake of the world, hopefully more and more people choose a reflective mood. Then we can all liberate that divine spark in us, a spark that can overcome the temptations of Empire and help usher the era of a more sustainable planet.