Since the First Century, if not before, the choice of people of faith has been between empire approved institutions or the individual or tiny group quest for peace, justice and personal, if not cultural, transformation.
Could any of us even begin to imagine how different European (and world) history would have been if, instead of massive armed hordes of Crusaders, Christianity had been represented on the world’s stage by a dozen or so St. Francises?
I don’t if religions choose empires, but I do know that empires choose religions to add a sheen on what would otherwise be seen as blatant exploitation if not genocide.
The Natives of North America described the ‘gifts’ of the Europeans as being “God, guns and gin”.
Alcohol, murder and a vengeful God are, at best, an odd cultural trinity.
But could we, in almost any era, imagine a different configuration? How about justice, forgiveness and Shalom? Or respect, empowerment and stewardship? How about peace, fraternity and equality?
Even today, we name our airports, freeways and aircraft carriers after our leaders and warriors.
Could we imagine a USS Mother Teresa or a St. Francis Memorial airport or a Thomas Merton correctional facility?
For whatever reason, we prefer to name our monuments after wartime presidents and generals.
After all, that’s how the Romans honored their Ceasars and the Egyptians immortalized their Pharoahs.
We use airports and highways while the Egyptians used pyramids, but it’s the same principle.
We have had a few universities named after presidents, but we all know that they would far rather have preferred a battleship or a military base.
But what if, instead of empire bending, or even forcing, religion to do its bidding, religion, faith and humility held, and even kept, the moral high ground and authority?
Could we even begin to image the impact of ‘soul force’ as Gandhi put it, on the economy, development of technology, education and respect for and appreciation of individual expression?
But I can see the objections already; that’s just human nature – the brutes always win.
Perhaps the brutes do win most of the time – if you can call nearly eternal internecine warfare and revolution ‘winning’.
History does show us that the large empires win – but not for long.
Who does ‘win’?
And what would real ‘winning’ look like?
I can think of one leader with a dozen or so unimpressive followers whose ‘kingdom’ is doing just fine.
Jesus had minimal marketing, recalcitrant and sometimes just plain dense followers; he held no ‘campaigns’ or ‘crusades’.
He touched, healed and restored. People clamored to hear his words and be in his presence. Entire nations and cultures (and certainly individuals) changed – and continue to change because of his influence.
I’d call that winning.
And we don’t need an airport, freeway or convention center to remember his name.