Tony Jones, the Church, and the Empire strikes back!

"Church Slavery" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward
“Church Slavery” cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

Whoever writes for the Church is involved in a good project. Any voice that enters the conversation around the Church should be heard, considered, and judged. This is why I read Tony Jones. I want to hear what he has to say, consider it, then judge whether it is beneficial to the Church or not.

I read Jones’ post, In Praise of Empires, with dismay and finally alarm. I have questions. If a real historian wrote this post, I would simply have closed the tab and moved on. But when a Church theologian writes it, I see yellow flags.

Jones doesn’t like to be criticized. Who does? But if we’re writing for the Church, we should invite it because we aren’t promoting our own reputation but the Church’s health. It’s unfair to call one’s critics cultured despisers, trolls or to compare them to hot-takers like Matt Walsh. What if it’s not my sensibilities that has been offended, but the Church’s wellbeing that has been threatened?

Why is Jones saying what he’s saying? As one commenter replied, “I fail to see where you can ethically take this line of reasoning.” What is the ethical ramifications of what Jones is saying to the Church? It’s not only what he is saying, but why is he saying it? Jones is a theologian obviously interested in Christianity and the Church, seminaries, distinguished theological publishers, and the emergent movement. So I have to suspect that when he praises the Empire, this somehow relates to his ideas about the Church. In fact, they do. Throughout his post he draws a connection between the Church and the Empire that is disturbing.

I would like to highlight a few of the disturbing ethical implications Jones seems to suggest:

  1. Is he suggesting that the end justifies the means? Jones says, “Crucifixions? Yes. But also aqueducts.” Even though the Roman Empire wreaked havoc on countless cultures and lives, they advanced civilization. Even though it brutally subdued and subjugated civilizations and peoples, it brought them the finer amenities of life for which they should be grateful. If we care about the Church, can we speculate that Jones is willing to let people suffer for the sake of a movement, an ideology or a vision that contributes to the success of the Church? If the emergent movement can bring the Church benefits, is the subduing and subjugation of its people tolerable to ensure its success?
  2. Is Jones suggesting that abuse can have positive results? He says, “… they would acquire slaves — slaves that could attain freedom…”. Jones believes that slavery is good if the slaves are harvested from a culture that is deemed inferior and underdeveloped. For an advanced culture to capture inferior people and make them slaves is something they should desire because they can now enjoy the finer things of life that the Empire provides. Also, the Empire will grant slaves their freedom when the stringent prerequisites are met, not to return to their home and homeland, but to serve the Empire in other ways. Is freedom under another’s rule better than freedom under my own? As someone who is interested in the Church, is Jones saying that ruling over Christians and controlling them, as long as it’s for a good cause, is legitimate? Is the heavy-handed management of people permitted for the sake of the Church’s noble causes?
  3. Is Jones suggesting that we must accept abusive leaders as an inevitability? “Yes, they were brutal and often violent, but they were also civil and appreciative of beauty and art and literature.” I realize Jones is trying to get us to acknowledge the nuances of history, that it isn’t all that straight a line and that it isn’t all that black and white on either side of it. But he also seems to propose that we should accept and appreciate authoritarian and abusive leaders as complex human beings who aren’t always monsters. Yes, they are brutal and violent toward us, but they enjoy the same things we do. Is Jones insinuating to the Church that even though its leaders can be cruel and inhumane we should allow them to continue their reign because they are accomplishing the results the Church needs and desires?
  4. Is Jones suggesting that the Church should take advantage of power? He says, “It was on the back of Roman order and government that Christianity spread”, and “… Christianity spread largely as a result of these imperial advancements.” Jones believes that Christianity took advantage of the Empire’s power to spread itself. I’m not a historian, but shouldn’t the idea should be proposed that Christianity didn’t spread because of the Empire but in spite of it? Indeed, shouldn’t the brutal persecution Christians suffered under its rule validate this proposal? Is Jones intimating to the Church that its leaders should use any power at their disposal to propagate their agenda? Is this what is inspiring Jones’ interest in seminaries and denominations and reputable theological publishers and the Emergent movement and Empires? Does Jones believe that the only way the Church will advance is through the use of power, and that therefore strong leaders should step up?

These ideas concern me because they are anti-Church. They are, indeed, enemies of the Church. They do not serve it, but rather lord over it to convert it into something it’s natively not. Jones’ ideas hint that he believes the Church would be served best by following its leaders, strong and authoritative though they are, because they will take the Church and whoever survives the application of its agendas to where it needs to go.

When I read Jones’ post I feel that I’m being invited to enslave myself to the strong leaders of the Church so that they can accomplish their vision. I really feel like I’m being summoned to sacrifice myself. It’s implicit but it’s there! It reminds me of a scene from M.A.S.H. where Major Frank Burns says this about being a good American:

“Unless we each conform, unless we obey orders, unless we follow our leaders blindly, there is no possible way we can remain free.”

I spent decades in the Church, three of those as a pastor. I’ve thought and wrote long and hard about visionary thinking in the Church. It is the thinking of the Empire. The Church and the Empire are adversaries and always will be. Read The Revelation! Shaping a vision for a Church, setting its goals and achieving them regardless of the cost to individual people or the quality of the Church’s community life is unfortunately standard procedure for the Church and its leaders. Generally, unlike the earliest Church, the Church today is more enamored with power.

This is one of the main reasons why I opted out of the organized Church and its ministry. People were crucifying, being crucified, and were willing to be crucified for the equivalent of aqueducts, roads, and monuments.

No more! And not again!

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30 Replies to “Tony Jones, the Church, and the Empire strikes back!”

  1. David,
    Thank you for your insight. I am not surprised at all by this. Again, pathology before theology. As former class president of the high school Latin club the obsession with Rome and power goes way back. A “Caesar complex” coupled with a diagnosis shrouded as a charming nice guy, is a toxic combo. The pathology allows the individual to over look the wake of bodies they leave behind because well, look at the forum or coliseum I just built?! Never mind, it’s foundation covers up my unrepentant sin and suffering of those who dared to get in my way. I see straight through this to the heart of a sick man who salivates for power and theology is just the vehicle. There is nothing of Christ here.

  2. After reading Tony’s post, the first word that comes to mind is “sociopath”

    The man frightens me. He seems to see people as disposable tools.

  3. Hi David, I scanned his entry and I don’t know the context of his whole blog. It appears that he’s trying to sift history and take a more “nuanced” view of how history formed Christianity… I wasn’t really getting a value judgment from him on the right or wrong, just that it’s a mixed bag, like all history is.

    It does sound like he’s defending Constantine a little. When we add it all together, I don’t think Constantine did the church any favors–I think the church ended up inheriting of those oppressive institutional attributes of the Roman society, and I think they far overshadow any benefit it may have passed onto us.

    In my seminary, my liberal professors blanched at the term, Kingdom of God, because it sounded like an oppressive empire. But Jesus redefined empire with his many parables, I think, in include a softer yet stronger image of God’s kingdom.

  4. You know, when I think about “empire” – Roman or Egyptian or Chinese or Russian or American – and consider both accomplishments and damage inflicted (human and otherwise), and then think about what Christianity might have to say on the subject, the first thing that comes to mind is “to whom much has been given, from him much will be required.” Then a lot of other things come to mind (like references to “that which is Caesar’s” versus “that which is God’s” and admonishment to “not lord it over one another” and then there’s the whole deliverance from Egyptian slavery thing…)

    “Yeah, but…” is not one of things that is on that list, however. Instead, it’s “yes, and….” AND all that power and technology create a greater responsibility to behave justly, fairly, ethically. Abuses of power and harm done are not ameliorated or excused or diminished by whatever cultural or technological advances may have occurred during the reign of the empire. I tend to think it’s just the opposite: the good is tarnished by the bad – not the other way around. Those who would build empires – national, political, corporate, religious – should expect to be held to a higher standard, not a lower one, in keeping with their power and influence.

  5. I wonder if the. Nuanced approach he is offering is the very same mindset that led the church into compromise with Rome. It seems likely that church leaders had to nuance the violence and focus on the “advancements” to bring the church under the control of empire. Now we must use all our power and influence and intelect to reconstruct a grass roots church that refuses to be manipulated by the drug of empire. David, you are one of our voices!

  6. I think the problem here is one of context. A historian may well take time to look at the nuances of empire – how brutality and beauty coexisted. And a historian may well look at how the advances in infrastructure during the spread of Pax Romana during the 2nd and 3rd centuries enabled people to travel further and more efficiently as well as improving communications, or how the development of a Lingua Franca contributed to the communication of the Christian message.

    However, for a Church pastor the context of considering these things is quite different, and writing about these things provokes a very different response in people. A historian has no vested interest in whether or not such things are good or bad, only in judging the primary and secondary source materials to gain an understanding. A Church pastor is about practice, and that practice is about people. He or She doesn’t have the luxury of detached consideration. Either Tony Jones has no regard for the consequences of his consideration, or he is dangerously confusing the reading of the past with the application in the present.

  7. I think this example of theology is less about TJ being a sociopath than it it is Jello Biafra’s axiom, “Democrats are on the inside what Republicans are on the outside, and vice versa.” It’s much less about any sort of theology than it is the allure of power. TJ’s pathology just naturally draws him to seek power by whatever means.

  8. Though I think judging an empire as a whole — as if it is a human being — is a mistake. Heck, judging a person as a whole is usually a mistake too.

    So, empire good or bad is a ridiculous evaluation style from the start.

    But, that Jones is using his evaluations to support his pathology, I don’t doubt. We all do that. It just depends on our pathology of how ugly the combination.

    Good questions, David

  9. I agree with Tony’s main point, that progressive Christians don’t fully understand the Roman empire. Tony does make some errors himself in understanding the empire; conquered peoples didn’t become citizens; but overall he makes a good point. Many left leaning Christians imagine Jesus as a forerunner of Gandhi challenging the uniquely oppressive Romans rule in favor of a just local rule. However close study of the time shows that Roman rule was no more oppressive and usually less so than the people they conquered. Rome didn’t introduce the crucifix, the Jewish kings before them already perfected its use. What was different was that Rome brought greater order to the region that brought those beloved roads and aquaducts. Rome’s cruelty did make life better for more people than Jewish cruelty, Greek cruelty, Gaelic cruelty, and so forth.

    I’m not sure that this is an argument for the end justifying the means, but there doesn’t seem to be an upside to a world were Roman cruelty is replaced by the cruelty of all the classical worlds petty tyrants and warlords. Of course without the empire there would be no christianity, but that would be true of any number of factors. How ever had the ancient world been divided by a thousand fueding kingdoms rather than pax romana. Would the civil right movement been aided if instead of a U.S. empire King had lived in an unconquered confederacy?

  10. Jones is saying that the assessment of Rome’s contribution to the world is more complicated than current critical theory (or it’s popular religious manifestation in progressive Christianity) allows for. Your overreaction proves him right.

  11. Tony’s ‘hey, I’m rethinking some of this stuff’ approach does not bother me. Deconstructing his own religion, his own Christ, and its place in history seems to happen to all of us sooner or later.

    Tony postulates at the end, “In fact, without the Roman Empire, there very likely would be no Christianity.”

    If ‘Christianity’ is described as the ‘Roman, then West Euro, then American version of Christianity’, perhaps Tony has a point. Within my understanding of history, Christianity spread by blood and sword, as well as by peace and love.

    Our religion has an ugly history; a nice history; and a lovely history. However, we need to learn from history, rather than just re-examine it.

    I have rejected every form of institutional Christianity at this point in my life, because of its Empire mentality – they build their roads on the blood of the marginal peoples they disdain.

    Thus, Tony’s article raises a question, and in my opinion comes to a good conclusion. However, there is ‘good, better, and best’. Again, we must learn from history rather than just re-postulate it.

    As an author, I hope he goes on to postulate the ‘better’ and ‘best’ conclusions. In my opinion, He should show that the living church cannot be built on the Empire mentality:

    – the Emperor is not a demi-god that has always righteous and divine decrees – this is the failure of the Moses Model of Leadership held by the Calvary Chapels and Vineyards;

    – the Emperor cannot govern in secret – the Internet has rendered every pastor exposed – and no amount of Empire discipline can stop the voice of the Internet – thus pastors/leaders should admit to being involved in second marriages, co-habitation, porn, the underground, alternative forms of religion, etc. Their congregation will grow in light of their honesty, rather than grow due to their hiding behind a façade of American-style righteousness.

    – the whipped slaves will continue to hid in the shadows quietly — this is why institutional Christianity has 10% doing 100% of the work. Who wants to be the next person subject to ‘discipline’? Gads, Paul the Apostle used excommunication only for a case that would stop the non-believer from considering the good news!

    – the children of the whipped slaves will continue to walk out — they have no desire to build another road to Rome with their blood. IMO, If a reader is age 45 to 35 in the USA, then the church institution is barely on their ‘must have’ radar. If they are age 35 or under in the USA, then the church institution is not even a blip on their radar ….

    Again, in my opinion, Tony’s article was a good ‘I’m rethinking my world view of ancient history’ type of article. However, there is ‘good, better, and best’. Hopefully, we will see a better article from Tony furthering his concepts.

    I give his article a grade of “B minus” since he did not advance the concepts towards a possible implementable solution within our present culture. He is regurgitating history, rather than helping us learn from it.

  12. @Caryn “thus pastors/leaders should admit to being involved in second marriages, co-habitation, porn, the underground, alternative forms of religion, etc. Their congregation will grow in light of their honesty, rather than grow due to their hiding behind a façade of American-style righteousness.” Being honest with your followers is to be exposed. Admission of weakness impossible with certain pathologies. Tony told his followers that his first wife Julie McMahon was unstable and crazy in order to legitimize his actions and co-habitation.

  13. This reminds me of Obama’s famous line: “we tortured some folks” (and spied on almost the whole world, and held some without charge for years… but who is counting?)

    As I posted over there, I see two ironies in Tony’s article:

    Jesus was unjustly crucified by a conspiracy between this empire and its religious sycophants, maintained in power by their complicity with the occupiers.

    The privileged are unlikely to be good judges of the value of empire – as Jesus said: whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me.

  14. Most of TJ’s articles I have read have a few facepalm moments in them… Kind of a signature of sorts. I now expect it, yet never completely understand why. It’s usually something I perceive as pride or arrogance. I’m probably wrong…Maybe. For instance, it is trivial, but the spot about having been to Rome so many damn times. Is this some way to set up a pretenses for assuming his following words have validity on merit of his experience in the Eternal City. Wondering why has it taken 15 damn times of visitation to bring on a rudimentary thought as, “Man Rome is bitchin… But damn, they were vicious… But damn, Rome is awesome!”

    I also think it’s telling that he is criticizing how “fashionable” critiquing Empire is… Interesting how more and more people are realizing that Empire has some serious problems (in my eyes a positive) and the vested progressive doesn’t want to be seen as fashionable… So he critiques the critique…as a new way to be radical?!? Not sure…

    I kind of think TJ’s article was ultimately making something out of nothing. At least in relation to the Headline. He doesn’t really believe in “Praising Empires”. At least in the way progressives, Crossan, Borg, other peers use it. Remember,TJ starts the article off by setting up a problem with progressive peers critiquing “Empire”.

    I assume, from my limited understanding, Empire is not the nation state, but it is the essence of triumphalism and systems of oppression that create power structures for the said empire over an OTHER/S.

    And here is his flaw. “Empires” (the headline), “Roman Empire” (main subject in article), and “Empire” (paragraph two) are words TJ uses in the article, without explaining the difference between them. We are left to assume they are the same, to assume that the progressive peers in the second paragraph are speaking of the same specific empire as the rest of the article. (This suggest TJ was himself confused when writing this article, or he was intentional in is wordplay to get a desired effect)

    I come to this theory because TJ starts off by referencing “Rome”. He then mentions his “Fashionable” peers critiquing “Empire”, he then mentions Constantine, essentially the “Roman Empire”. The main article speaks mostly of the Roman Empire and Constantine. Yet, in my opinion, the second paragraph of the article was the whole purpose for the article. Are progressives misunderstanding Empire? Should progressive peers reevaluate Rome and Constantine (through this article, mind you), and not be so down on Empire? After all, there wouldn’t be any Christians without Empires…

    Again, Rome and Constantine are of a specific Empire, while Empire is a general oppressive system (one which the Roman Empire took part in).

    TJ wants to praise the specific achievements of a particular empire, The Roman Empire. I say, there is nothing wrong with admiring their architectural feats and democratic process’s. And yet while doing so, he claims his fashionable colleagues are too heavy handed in critiquing Rome. I would assume, TJ’s progressive peers are in fact referencing the “Empire” as a system, not the Roman Empire in most every case.

    Therefore, there is no unnecessary contention with Constantine or the Roman Empire (they should be criticized), progressives are not down on the Roman Empire’s art and aqueducts, only the Roman Empires intimate involvement with “Empire,” the systems of violence and oppression, and TJ is in fact stating nothing. There is no argument, just misunderstanding of terms… Or maybe pot stirring… In that case maybe he is a little like Matt Walsh…


  15. Sound like he never heard of post-colonialism! And I fail to see how the crucifixions helped, in any way, to build the roads, aquaducts, etc. The way he talks about spreading the gospel by enslaving both Christians and yet to be converted ‘heathens’….. never mind such things as free will, or we are free in Christ, or my burden is light…

    Last night I had this reoccurring dream, at least for the third time in the last few years, about sitting in a church with a minister saying horrible stuff and finally losing my cool, I begin to shout at him. I can’t imagine myself ever doing such I real life (I mostly avoid church nowadays) but I can’t begin to explain how statisfying that dream is…. It makes me wake up with a smile on my face everytime where I am like ‘yay, told them so’ lol.

  16. I should clarify that I have no problem with looking at issues such as the historical questions posed. It would have been a far better article, showing some self awareness and critical thinking, if TJ had looked at parallels between then and now. In what ways is the Church now enjoying the benefits – (perhaps including technology, lifestyle, cost of living etc and the other fruits of globalisation). The uneasy relationship between living in a culture, then opportunities it gives, and perhaps avoiding the dark problems that exist.

  17. Can’t we just say that throughout history, shit happens, but God in His mercy redeems and uses it for His good and the ultimate advancement of His kingdom? Be it the Roman Empire, Dark Ages, or my three miscarriages? It seems to me like Tony once again took God out of the equation and replaced Him with his own intellectual Golden Calf. Par for the frigging course.

  18. I would like to respond to your responses:

    1. No he wasn’t. He was saying that history needs to be judge with nuance and balance. The new fad anti-empire crowd lacks both. The Romans didn’t invent slavery, or crucifixion, or violence and oppression. However they did move the ball forward in a continuing march of social evolution. Were the poor oppressed Jews in the Roman Empire any better under Jewish rule? They condoned slavery, they stoned people to death (if you think that is better than slavery you should read up on it), they fought wars, and committed atrocities. Plucking the Roman Empire out of historical context and decrying the things they did as if the things they did were somehow out of place, while ignoring the things they did which was evolutionary is just revisionist and anachronistic.

    2. No, he is saying the Roman slavery may have included enhancement that were actually more humane than other forms, such as Jewish slavery which was for life. Slavery was a reality of the world in which the Roman Empire existed so judging it for having slaves is meaningless since the entire world at the time would be judged right along side. Asking whether or not the Romans made advances in the area of slavery that progressed society is a valid historical question. It is not valid if you are simply trying to further ananit-empire agenda.

    3. Again, no. He is again saying that history is a mixed bag, and the ‘Down with Empire’ folks completely ignore that. And conveniently ignore that everything that they enjoy, including their christianity and this neat little thing that allows them to transmit their ideas all over the world from their keyboard, is a product of empire. It has been a brutal, messy, bloody evolution, but it has also produced poetry, art, music, and countless amounts of beauty in a process of creative destruction. The ‘Down with Empire’ folks like to try to convince us that they can make an omelette without breaking any eggs, but to this date all they do is eat the omelette the was made by other people breaking eggs while calling them names.

    4. Nope – he is simply owning up to the historical reality that the ‘Down with Empire’ folks would like to conveniently overlook, that the present of christianity is anything but certain without the historical support of Empire. They like to pretend that they are hearkening back to ‘true christianity(TM)’ but how would they even know what that is if not for Empire? They are much like the NeoCons who thought all they had to do was bring Democracy to Iraq and mission accomplished, ignoring the long historical context out of which our democracy bloomed. Where we are today is a product of where we are from.

    It is weird that you say his analysis is ‘not church’ What is ‘not church’ about it? Because he looks at history in a balanced and nuanced way, rather than using history to further the agenda that church and Empire are always opposed (rather 1984, isn’t it?). Without Empire ‘the church’ may very well not exist anymore and we would all be talking about how the Mystery Cult is opposed to empire. The whole thing strikes me as a theological Oedipal project.

  19. *Is* there a new and hips anti-empire crowd? That just sounds like so many straw windmills to me.

    Also “you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs” is a really nasty way to talk about, say, crucifixions. And it’s a false equivalency. Omelette are, by definition, broken eggs. Aqueducts and art are not, by definition, crucifixions.

  20. R Vogel,

    Jewish slavery was for a maximum of 7 years, and land seizure for debts was for a maximum of 49 years. This was part of the Torah, and it ensured that slavery was never generational, and that each family had its own land.

    However, I acknowledge that the Jews often failed to implement this system.

  21. Also, this quote from the very end of TJ’s OP:

    “”So, the next time you hear someone throwing Constantine under the bus or savaging the reputation of the Roman Empire, take a minute to consider whether the story might be a bit more nuanced than that.””

    … is he talking about himself here? Is this entire post just to show how *he* is misunderstood, and why is everyone hating on him for pursing his spiritual wife?

  22. Danica- That quote, combined with the entire first bit that jeered mockingly at everyone who disagreed with him, seemed so transparently a forced analogy to himself, that D and I were cracking up while reading it to each other last night.*

    *by “cracking up” I mean gag-laughing.

  23. As far as the scholarly aspect of it, it reads like he didn’t go to Rome so much as watch that one scene in Life Of Brian as though it were a documentary.

  24. I have tried to comment twice on his post, but he has deleted them both times. He tweeted yesterday that it is a privilege and not a right to comment on blogs. He prefers proclamations we are to swallow rather than participating in a conversation. It sounds like something Rome would do. Sorry, but I have no respect for that.

  25. “He prefers proclamations we are to swallow rather than participating in a conversation.”

    That just took my mind to a verrry dirty place.

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