God and Empire: The Writings of Ted Grimsrud

As an undergraduate, I took a two semester course at a liberal university on The Old and New Testaments. While I’ll be the first to admit I possess a mediocre memory, I do recall its central tenets were teaching of the text as a historical work; there were no moral or spiritual lessons to be learned. Perhaps some might say I lacked the courage of my convictions, but at the time I was agnostic.

Later in life, my outlook changed and I have had the good fortune to discover outside of my alma mater the writings of believers discussing scripture. I have found that frequently not only their thoughts resonate with me more strongly than those secular scholars I’d read before but that they are more insightful in their understanding of the Bible.

Writing for Lew Rockwell’s website, I received some thoughtful inquiries—and some with marked hostility—to my appreciations of Joseph Sobran, Desmond Doss and other works that I hoped would inspire discussion and perhaps reflection upon their subjects. I suspect this essay, in which I hope to introduce the work of Ted Grimsrud to those who’ve not discovered him, will not provoke as much outrage at worst and angst at best; perhaps those readers with what I would call closed minds and the conviction of their unwise prejudices can view the Biblical texts discussed as presenting moral teachings that are beneficial to those who value the principles of nonaggression and limited government. If the Bible affirms central Libertarian tenets, I would think that would be a cause for celebration, not condemnation—even to committed atheists.

Time to buy old US gold coins

Providentially—I believe—I discovered Ted Grimsrud’s website in responding to a kind correspondent. And his work brought me to understand what I believe is an implicit perspective in the writings of the Prophets and Jesus’s relationship to earthly power in the form of the Roman Empire and the complicit priestly establishment. Writing Peace: Collect... Ted Grimsrud Best Price: $14.48 Buy New $10.00 (as of 07:15 UTC - Details)

In his essay “The Old Testament Peace Vision” Grimsrud makes the case that governments as constituted on earth are inherently immoral, especially when power is concentrated in the hands of a few and the state becomes militarized. He writes:

When Israel’s elders came to Samuel asking for a king, he responds with strong words, recounted in 1 Samuel 8:11-18: “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots.…He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and courtiers. He will take…the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. You shall be his slaves. In that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

Samuel argues that the turn toward human kingship will likely lead to a transformation in Israel away from the central tenets of Torah. Kingship will tend toward a redistribution of power and wealth. Power and wealth will move upward in the social system, shifting from the broader community toward the elite. This social transformation will lead to more and more poverty and disenfranchisement among the people.

Along with the increasing concentration of power and wealth in fewer hands, and linked with this dynamic, under a human king Israel will move toward more and more militarization. With the king will come a standing army, rather than the ad hoc militias that had gained and defended the promised land. With the standing army will come the accumulation of horses and chariots, the tools of war. As well, a new class of person heretofore not known in Israel will gain prominence—career military officers as a major power bloc in the society.

I cannot but suspect that most reading these words will not fail to see how all the governments of the nations of the earth even now follow this paradigm and the consequence is suffering and injustice to the vast majority of the subject peoples; the career military officers gaining prominence is an apt description of President Trump’s administration. Yet while it is necessary to read the entire essay to appreciate its central tenet, I think the key point made is that God is the god of love—not war:

The last Old Testament book is likely the book of Daniel, probably written around 165 [B.C.]. The basic message of the Daniel is a good one for a last word. Daniel teaches: be patient, trust in God’s faithfulness even when you suffer and are afraid, do not be dominated by your anxiety, let God’s will work its way. Trust that God’s will is salvation and that even in hard times, God’s love perseveres.

The interpretive key for reading the Christian Bible as supporting pacifism, of course, may be found in the life and teaching of Jesus. However, Jesus’s message of peaceableness and restorative justice stemmed directly from his Bible (our Christian “Old Testament”). Jesus provided a clarity of focus, but he essentially reiterated what he saw as the central themes of the Bible concerning God’s compassion.

From the start, the Bible presents God as willing peace for human beings—for all human beings. God means for this love for “all the families of the earth” to be channeled through a community formed through God’s election of them as a people of the promise. The story makes it clear that this election is pure mercy—God’s persevering love for God’s elect is itself an expression of God’s love for enemies. Time after time, the story makes clear, the people turn from God. Yet, as the prophet Hosea reports (chapter 11), God ultimately does not respond with violence and wrath, but with healing love.

Thus, I would argue that the modern nation states as they exist in their conduct, in their very organization, in their priorities, and in the actions of their leadership are contrary to what God wills for humanity; that is, they are inherently immoral at their core. And for those who do not believe in God, I would say that the will of the nation state is anti-human; that violence, contrary to the libertarian nonaggression principal, is at its heart. Therefore, Grimsrud’s reading of the Bible is not, in the words of Edith Hamilton, as “a manual of devotion” but as a text to be studied for a way to live and a source of wisdom, especially for those who are potential victims and will find inspiration of those who resisted and succeeded in the past.

In his essay “Jesus’s Confrontation with Empire” Grimsrud writes:

When Jesus rejected authoritarian types of leadership, he rejected Rome’s power politics: “You know that among the Gentiles (that is, the Romans) those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It must not be so among you” (Mark 10:42).  With this statement, “Jesus clearly stated that the existing ‘order of peace’ is based on the oppressive rule of force. That is the way in which Jesus and…his disciples experience the reality of the Pax Romana…The alternative which Jesus puts forward shows that he is not resigned…Peace based on oppressive force is not what Jesus wants.”[11]

Jesus’s words concerning the payment of taxes present his listeners with a choice between two competing claimants for their loyalties: God or Caesar; it has to be one or the other. Those who trust in the true God will deny Caesar’s claims for their loyalty. “If God is the exclusive lord and Master, if the people of Israel live under the exclusive kingship of God, then all things belong to God, the implications for Caesar being fairly obvious. Jesus is clearly and simply reasserting the Israelite principle that Caesar, or any other imperial ruler, has no claim on the Israelite people, since God is their actual king and master.”[12]

When given the opportunity in the wilderness prior to the beginning of his public ministry to overthrow the Romans with force, Jesus turned Satan down. And, at the end, when face to face with Pilate, Jesus asserted that “my kingdom is not of this world.” However, neither of these points should be understood as portraying Jesus as apolitical or indifferent to the Roman Empire. Rather, when seen in conjunction with his ministry as a whole, Jesus in both cases presents his politics as an alternative to Roman political authoritarianism.[13] Jesus spearheaded a revolutionary movement—revolutionary not only in its rejection of the present political status quo but in presenting an alternative vision for social order. The language of “kingdom” indicates that Jesus understood himself to be posing a contrast between his community and Rome.[14]

Jesus’s vision was in full continuity with the heart of Torah. That such a Torah-oriented vision was revolutionary in first-century Jewish Palestine only underscores that the spirit of empire embodied in ancient Egypt remained alive and well in the time of the Romans. Just as Torah originally countered the empire-consciousness of Egypt, so its renewal in Jesus’s ministry countered the empire-consciousness of Rome.

I think in this time of omnipresent war, when we live in an intrusive state whose power over every individual continues to increase, when more and mightier weapons of mass destruction are being conceived, each and every one of us has to decide whether to worship Caesar—in his numerous forms and incarnations (for the American citizen the “Washington” empire) or whether to choose to become closer to God.

I believe the “Kingdom of Heaven” is indeed possible for a minority, for those individuals who choose to be faithful to God by rejecting Caesar: not fighting in his unjust wars of conquest and showing compassion to those in need, by speaking Truth to power, by remembering what the great teachers of Judaism and Jesus himself knew: we must change how we act towards one another, we must seek to become like God not through the lie of the wielder of spears and thunderbolts but to become like the God whose greatest power is the power of love. For Grimsrud writes:

David Rensberger makes this same point. “Jesus’s words about his kingship do not deny that it is a kingship, with definite social characteristics. Instead they specify what those characteristics are. It is not a question of whether Jesus’s kingship exists in this world but of how it exists; not a certification that the characteristics of Jesus’s kingdom are ‘otherworldly’ and so do not impinge on this world’s affairs but a declaration that his kingship has its source outside this world and so is established by methods other than those of this world.”[19] Jesus is a different kind of king, rejecting the brute force and hoarding of wealth that characterized emperors. He denies the validity of militarism. “The empire (‘kingdom’) that his words and actions have attested differs significantly from Rome’s.” Jesus advocates inclusiveness, humility, and mercy—all in contrast to how the Gentiles’ leaders lord it over them.[20]

Sadly, too many people who consider themselves religious Christians and Jews have lost their way. I believe that the warmongering, Machiavellian Neoconservatives, be they Jewish or Christian, and all their minions and hangers-on are victims of their own hubris and ignorance; by their deeds they are distancing themselves from God, the God who values all human life. Sadly, there is a rise in antisemitism (or Judeophobia) and I have been attacked on the social media site Gab for pointing out the truth that many Jews are advocates for peace. Phillip Giraldi has written subsequently to his essay America’s Jews Are Driving America’s Wars: Proclaiming Peace: Col... Ted Grimsrud Best Price: $14.48 Buy New $10.00 (as of 07:15 UTC - Details)

Would I do something different if I were to write my article again today? Yes. I would have made clearer that I was not writing about all or most American Jews, many of whom are active in the peace movement and, like my good friend Jeff Blankfort and Glenn Greenwald, even figure among the leading critics of Israel. My target was the individuals and Jewish “establishment” groups I specifically named, that I consider to be the activists for war.

I would add of course Professor Stephen Cohen to Giraldi’s list. I do not know if Christian and Jewish warmongers and lovers of our modern day Romes—whether London, Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Paris, Berlin, Brussels or Tel Aviv—will ever change their minds, will ever learn what the Bible taught about righteous conduct and what ultimately are actions that will be in their own—and their nations’—interest. The Roman Empire is long dead; these modern empires will also die in time, perhaps not without claiming the lives of millions of more victims, including their own populations and perhaps many of their ruling “elites” despite their arrogance and delusional conviction of invulnerability.

As to atheists who read my words and perhaps are put off by the Bible, I would encourage them to find the work of atheist Murray Rothbard; ironically, he was speaking in his best writing in the tradition of Prophetic Judaism as Amos did. In his essay “The Anatomy of the State”, he writes:

We are now in a position to answer more fully the question: what is the State? The State, in the words of Oppenheimer, is the “organization of the political means”; it is the systematization of the predatory process over a given territory. For crime, at best, is sporadic and uncertain; the parasitism is ephemeral, and the coercive, parasitic lifeline may be cut off at any time by the resistance of the victims. The State provides a legal, orderly, systematic channel for the predation of private property; it renders certain, secure, and relatively “peaceful” the lifeline of the parasitic caste in society. Since production must always precede predation, the free market is anterior to the State. The State has never been created by a “social contract”; it has always been born in conquest and exploitation. The classic paradigm was a conquering tribe pausing in its time-honored method of looting and murdering a conquered tribe, to realize that the time-span of plunder would be longer and more secure, and the situation more pleasant, if the conquered tribe were allowed to live and produce, with the conquerors settling among them as rulers exacting a steady annual tribute.

(Rothbard, Murray N. Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature (pp. 59-60). Ludwig von Mises Institute. Kindle Edition.)

I find a resonance in Rothbard’s writing and the prophets, and Grimsrud’s discussion in his essay above about the drawbacks of kingship, in other words the state:

As Samuel warned, these kings do figuratively, at least, return the people to Egypt. By the time of Israel’s third king, David’s son Solomon, the die is cast. When Solomon gained power, he reorganized social structures toward much greater centralized control. He instituted rigorous taxation to expand his treasury. He began to draft soldiers, to expand the collection of horses and chariots into a large, permanent army with career military leaders. And he also decreed a policy of forced labor for his twenty-year building project of constructing first his palace and then the temple. Samuel had warned that the kings would build standing armies, take the best of the produce of the people, and make them slaves. This is precisely what Solomon did. With him, Israel took a large step toward political authoritarianism, moving back in the direction of Egypt…

Poignantly, the prophet Jeremiah, when Babylon conquered the Hebrew nation-state, writes of accompanying Jewish exiles into Egypt. It is as if the entire history following the exodus has been for naught, as people of the covenant return to trusting in power politics and turning from Torah and toward empire faith.

Of course, it’s not the ancient Hebrew peoples that concern me now; it’s the worship of the state and the god Ares that has replaced God in the hearts of too many professed Christians in America. As William J. Astore writes powerfully about so many American apostates in his The American Religion of War:

We have a cult-like affection for war and the military. It drives what we see—what we perceive. Believing is seeing. The military confesses to believe in “progress” in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, so we invent metrics that show how we’re winning (which is exactly what we did fifty years ago in Vietnam).

We are not a rational society. We are a faith-based society. And our temples and crosses are military bases and weaponry, which we export globally. The U.S. has 800 overseas bases, and America dominates the international trade in arms. Meanwhile, our missionaries are our Special Ops troops, which we send to 130 countries, spreading the American gospel. The gospel of war and the gun.

The icons of American militarism are our weapons. Our warplanes, our drones, big bombs (the MOAB), the list goes on. They have become the iconic symbols of an idolatry of destruction.

A xenophobic form of patriotism exacerbates a religion of violence. Exclusive rather than inclusive, it sets the boundaries of “us” versus “them.” Critics and dissenters are cast out and exiled.

Meanwhile, in far-off foreign lands, we reject the reality of ruins and rubble. We couch it instead in terms of salvation: “we had to destroy the village to save it.” It’s another aspect of our evangelical approach to war. It’s like being born again. You must tear yourself down before you’re born again in the spirit of Christ. We seem to believe cities must be ruined before we can declare victory over the enemy.

Of course, the “theology” Astore describes is the worst kind of blasphemy; as Grimsrud explains, such beliefs are the very antithesis of the core principals of prophetic Judaism and are inherently anti-Christian. I truly do not know how people can who hold such beliefs can be swayed from their “faith” for surely there was more outrage against the NFL players “take a knee” protest than against the wars that caused millions to suffer, millions to die and claimed not only foreign but American lives.

To some extent, I am heartened by what Stephen M. Walt wrote in “That Israel Lobby? History Has Proved Us Right”:

There is also a growing divide within the American Jewish community over what is best for Israel itself. Scholars like Dov Waxman, Steven Simon and Dana Allin have documented that American Jews today are less reluctant to criticize Israel’s policies or the actions of the Israeli government. The creation of the pro-peace lobby J Street, the rapid growth of progressive groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, and the success of controversial online journals critical of Zionism, such as Mondoweiss, show that attitudes about Israel are more complicated than in the past. Reflexive support for whatever Israel does is no longer the default condition for many American Jews.

I believe Grimsrud has pointed out the policies of Israel’s government today contravene its Biblical teaching and heritage; they are and will continue to be a source of woe. And for Christians in America the warning is the same, for Washington is the Rome of the twenty-first Son of Thunder: The Sp... Yvonne Lorenzo Buy New $12.00 (as of 04:45 UTC - Details) century and just as immoral and destructive as Rome’s empire at its height of conquest and oppression.

Yet we do not have to worship empires or remain their slaves. Ordinary people of good conscience do not have the corrupt power of the state: its armies, its media, its lies, its central banks, and its martial fanaticism. What we should and do have is a commitment to peace, a commitment to helping those in need, a commitment to reject prejudice and a commitment to tell the truth. Christians especially should understand their obligation to bring God’s Kingdom of Heaven to fruition, by practicing justice, through love, by rejecting the central tenets and slavery of empire. We need to support one another in these difficult times, now more than ever.

Certainly reading the Bible and using resources that include Peace Theology to aid in our understanding can set us free. Yet I am afraid that there will be even more violence—not only wars—in our future. Yet sometimes the best in people is revealed in such moments of crisis; when they remember without realizing how to become close to God.

We must understand, contrary to my liberal professor’s teaching, that Jesus’s Kingdom of Heaven has its origin in God but is necessary on earth; that we must learn what constitutes right and proper relationships between human beings. Jesus’ kingdom is for the living.

Christians have to learn again what Grimsrud reiterates:

In the end, Jesus’s death offers a profound alternative to imperial power politics. Jesus exposes Rome’s style of politics as actually a kind of anti-politics, a dis-order that gains people’s trust as an idol that actually separates them from God. “The scene exposes Roman justice to be administered by the elite for the elite’s benefit. There is no doubt that by Rome’s rules Jesus deserves to die. But this scene, in the context of the Gospel story, raises profound questions about the nature of those rules.”[24]

At the heart of Jesus’s teaching in the final months of his life was his instruction to his followers, “take up your cross and follow me.” This is a call to live free from political authoritarianism, to recognize that following Jesus puts them directly in opposition to the powers of empire. That the authorities (human and spiritual) would put Jesus to death is absolute proof of their idolatrous nature—and of the need for people of faith to distrust them.

And for people of faith, no matter the persecution, no matter the scorn and disdain, we know the peacemakers have God on their side. In eternity, that’s all that matters after all.