Fellow Passengers: Today’s Pastoral Passage* (Romans 10:9-18) transports me aboard the Imperial Death Star, where Lord Vader is trying in vain to get his prisoner, Princess Leia, to confess the whereabouts of the rebel forces. She’ll die before she’ll tell you anything, an aide tells Vader. Leave that to me, Darth Vader replies. Meanwhile, far, far away away, on the remote planet Tatooine, a young farmboy lives in ignorance of the Force, but his gnawing hunger for something more than the life he knows draws him into its field. Thus the middle trilogy of the Star Wars saga begins, and continues with increasing pressures all along the way for the rebels to abandon the way of the Force and submit to the dark side.
I thought of those kinds of pressures when reading Paul’s letter today, written to people living in a land of costly confession, where allegiances are formed and held at peril of persecution and death. Theirs is a land where saving grace is the ultimate reality of life, filling hearts so completely that people of faith freely ‘fess up in the face of competing allegiances. Somewhere along the Way, though, the rebel Church forgot the force that brought it into being. The Church transformed the radical statement of dangerous faith found in Romans 10:9, a creed not for the faint of heart, into a harmless memory verse for kids. At least that’s how I first encountered the verse a child; Jesus is Lord was easy for me to say. It wasn’t always so. Paul wrote this letter directly to the heart of an Empire that required worship of Caesar. Once a year all Roman subjects had to stand before the statue of Caesar in their town and recite a ritual pledge of allegiance: Caesar is lord. The ceremonial pledge was a symbol of unity in the diverse empire; it was their way of keeping the far-flung realm standing together as one nation, under Caesar, indivisible. Followers of Jesus had trouble with this mandated pledge. By the turn of the first century, when Roman persecution of Christians was in full stride, the persecutors provided captured Christians a way of escape from the terror of lions and gladiators and vats of boiling oil—they could save themselves with simple lip service: Caesar is lord. This offer to “save themselves” had no appeal to true believers, though; Jesus had already saved them. And the Living Savior demanded a Way different from the Roman way: take up your cross and follow me. For many of these early Christians, their crosses emerged on those defiant days when they stood before the imperial magistrate, and instead of the patriotic creed, they opened their mouths and as much as sealed their own death sentences: Jesus is Lord.
When Christianity proved impossible to kill off, when the rebel forces of the Prince of Peace kept growing in threatening numbers, the Empire struck back with a blow the rebellion has yet to fully recover from. In the 4th century Darth Caesar co-opted the name of Jesus and seduced the Body of Christ, effectively transforming a powerful peace movement into an imperial mascot. Ever since, cultural Christianity has been training citizens to give lip service to an easy faith, a faith where the confession Jesus is Lord can justify imperial conquests and comfortable Tatooine-like lifestyles, ignorant of the force that brought us life to begin with. There have always been some scattered rebel forces, though, who maintain a connection to the true force of Jesus’ radical spirit, a nonviolent force of love that, as Yoda reminded the young rebel Luke, surrounds us and binds us. The rebel forces know that the un-co-opted Jesus and His Way of love can still move mountains of oppression and lift sinking ships of despair. If we don’t believe it, that is why we fail. Anyone feeling rebellious?
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “World Peace.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.