My friendly denominational magazine recently quoted the following from the New York Times.
- United States spends nearly as much on military power as every other country in the world combined, including more than six times as much as China, the next highest.
- The United States maintains troops at more than 560 bases and other sites abroad, many of them a legacy of a world war that ended 65 years ago.
- The intelligence community is so vast that more people have “top secret” clearance than live in Washington, D.C.
- The United States will spend more on the war in Afghanistan this year, adjusting for inflation, than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War combined.
That seems like a lot of money to me. The pie chart to the left reveals a whopping 54% of our national budget goes towards military spending.
News Reports suggest that our involvement in Libya is set to exceed the $750 million estimate by the Pentagon, a statistic not likely to help our blossoming national debt.
Of course it’s a lot of money. But perhaps we’ve decided as a community it’s necessary for our salvation.
But where does our salvation really come from? There’s a great worship song by Crystal Lewis sung in many of our local churches which says:
Salvation belongs to our God
who sits upon the throne
and unto the lamb
be praise and glory, wisdom and thanks
honor, and power, and strength
be to our God forever and ever
These lyrics – a direct quote from Revelation 7:10 & 12 – are hard to argue with: salvation belongs to God. But in the historical context of Roman empire that these words were first penned, its not saying God and not Vishnu, Jesus not Allah is God. No, they’re a powerful and dangerous political statement: God, and not Caesar who promises pax Romana, is source of salvation.
This apparently is not a sideshow for the early church, but a central spiritual and linguistic premise. Jesus, Paul, and John all borrow explicitly political, explicitly Roman cultural-linguistic concepts to communicate the faith. Words like “gospel,” “kingdom,” “son of God,” “peace,” “Lord,” and even salvation are borrowed directly from Roman political culture to establish what NT Wright calls “a parady of the imperial cult.”
Take for instance the word “gospel,” a key concept in Christian theology and identity. Jesus and the early church had a wide range of words to choose from to sum up the message. Out of that linguistic soup they chose the “secular” greek word “euangelion,” a strictly imperial word referring narrowly to imperial news, usually pertaining to news from the front lines of battle. Why choose this secular word to describe Jesus message? Precisely because it sets up a choice of competing gospels to choose from: Caesar’s empire, or Jesus’ kingdom. Paul makes his choice clear, proclaiming for those in the imperial capital to hear: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” He bookends his letter to Rome with an equally dangerous counter-claim to Caesar that “all” people will praise Jesus and not Caesar.
It’s into this context of competing gospels that John assigns salvation to God, and not the “shock and awe” military might of pax Romana. The nature of each gospel and the character of each kingdom is radically different. Revelation portrays Caesar’s empire as a beast gobbling up innocents; but Jesus is portrayed not as a mighty warrior, but as the slain Lamb. Richard B. Hays writes in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, “A work that places the Lamb that was slaughtered at the center of its praise and worship can hardly be used to validate violence and coercion (pg. 330).”
Military Spending in Context
As I write this I’m sitting in the safety of the most overwelming military muscle the world has ever prioritized paying for. Direct parallels to Rome’s pax Romana are striking. I’m also sitting in the presence of the slain now-risen Lamb, celebrated weekly in churches on every Houston corner through the breaking and pouring of bread and wine. So I’m forced to ask, to whom belongs our salvation? Do the absurdity of these budgetary numbers supply the answer?
The gospels of Caesar and Jesus continue to recruit followers to this day, inviting us to repent, for their kingdom is near at hand. Can we afford to choose any differently than John and Paul?
Sing it with me church! You know the words:
Salvation belongs to our God…
We the redeemed shall be strong
in purpose and unity
be praise and glory, wisdom and thanks
honor, and power, and strength!
Be to our God forever and ever