The other day I was reminded of the old BBC mini-series “I Claudius,” based on Robert Graves’ popular novel about the Roman imperial dynasty. As a young man, the stammering and halting Claudius favored a return to the old Republic. Later in life, however, having been forced by the military into the role of emperor, he tries to make the best of a bad situation by governing with justice and clemency. Yet as his death approaches, he begins to realize that by governing too wisely and too well he may have actually done Rome a disservice. By putting a more smiling face on a brutal empire, he has made his fellow Romans comfortable with tyranny and dictatorship. Finally, when an assassination plot led by his wife Agrippina begins to coil around him, he welcomes it. For he knows that his stepson and successor Nero will govern so cruelly that the people will not bear it and will surely revolt in favor of a return to the Republic. “Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out,” he stammers at the end, meaning that things need to get much worse before people become willing to rise up. Rome needs to see the true face of dictatorship in all its hideous brutality.
The novel is of course a fictionalized account of the history surrounding Claudius’ reign. In having the emperor embrace death, the author, like many historians, tries to account for Claudius’ thought process in naming so unprepossessing a youth as Nero as heir. In reality, Nero would prove such a tyrant that both the imperial government and the military did eventually rise up against him, forcing him to commit suicide. The immediate result was an aborted attempt to reinstate a republic and a year of bloody civil war as several military generals struggled for succession. With peace came, not a return to the Republic, but at least a series of relatively “good” emperors, save one (as good as emperors go, I guess).
“Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.” It’s a ghastly thought, for in allowing events to take such a course, Claudius knows he is about to unleash unheard of mayhem on his own people, let alone the peoples of the empire. The Roman Senate was but a rubber stamp, a pale mockery of its former self. The Praetorian Guard, originally the emperor’s life guard, had taken on a life of its own and become the real power behind the throne. The military had become so powerful that he, the emperor, has to resort to bribery to get it to do what he wants. So as Claudius sees it, such suffering is the only way to break the stranglehold of this military-imperial complex.
Recently, I’ve been wondering what it will take to turn my own country around. With the recent removal of all restraint on corporate money in U.S. politics, the brainwashing of America by corporate media, corporate control of all three branches of government, the looting of our national treasure and the dissolution of the middle class, the alarming pandemic of intolerance and bigotry, the growing tyranny of the Security State, executive power, endless war, militarism, and the gutting of our Constitution, my country seems to be careening down a steep slope toward chaos and ruin. Poised on a precipice, we need to ask ourselves how bad things have to get before we wake up, stand up, speak out and join hands to work for real change. Perhaps they have to get worse, substantially worse.
I feel sickened by the thought that, despite all that we now see and suffer, the bulk of my fellow evangelicals continue to embrace an agenda of ever increasing militarism, nationalism, racism, corporatism, economic selfishness, ignorance, arrogance and empire– as though Jesus had preached, “Blessed are the rich, blessed are the powerful, blessed are the proud, blessed are those who persecute and oppress”– and of course, “blessed are the white.” (Having actually read the Bible, I can safely say this is not what Jesus envisioned for his church. )
I am jealous for us that we would wake up and take up the mantle of our true calling: that we would be a prophetic voice, not a pathetic one trying to establish our own kingdom at the point of a gun. I fear, however, that like the Germans of the 1930s, we will not be convinced of our errors until we see our country in rubble around our feet (if, that is, we are among those still standing). Madness has a way of leading to inevitable disaster once it picks up enough speed. I don’t know yet whether we have reached that critical velocity. The next few years will tell.
It is ironic that our real enemy is not Islam. Christian fundamentalism and its consort, fundamentalist Capitalism, have sown more seeds of destruction, are responsible for more mayhem and carnage than Islamic fundamentalism. Incredible, isn’t it? The church, the very thing that God created to be the answer, has become part of the problem. In its pushing a nationalistic agenda and militaristic solutions, in its blind support for an Israeli empire and its intolerance and selfish indifference toward other people groups, in its love affair with unbridled, so-called “free markets” and lack of concern for a suffering humanity, the church in this country, at least the loudest portion of it, has actually pushed the world closer to Armageddon. But no doubt they wanted that in the first place. “Blessed are the war-mongers for they shall see the kingdom of God, and quickly.”
The Lord intended, and still intends, the church to be a voice of peace and reason in this bellicose world. We are created in Christ Jesus to comfort and care for, not to make, widows and orphans. Odd that in pursuing a kingdom of righteousness, love, mercy, peace and justice, we should ignore all five. Hmm, sounds familiar, does it not?
Lord, we ask your forgiveness on behalf of an apostate church, for seeking to establish your kingdom through violence and bloodshed, instead of humility and love; for having allied ourselves with the forces of greed and selfishness, for seeking worldly power, instead of that which comes from your hand alone; for pushing this nation further from, instead of closer to you; for making this world a more dangerous and painful place and increasing the suffering of an already suffering humanity. In your mercy grant us the humility to see our sin and the wisdom to seek the truth, to change our course before it is too late, and to show the true face of Christ to a world groping in darkness.