My dear friend Vincent Gould made this video for In Praise of Rome. It is made, appropriately, out of footage from the war in Yemen, which we British are quietly supporting; supplying weapons and logistical help to the Saudi regime.
All this got ugly for us last week, for reasons I’ll mention further down. But first, in keeping with song, I should say something theological:
This song is about the meaning of the term ‘gospel’ – euangelion in Greek – meaning literally good news or glad tidings. The first Christians did not coin the term as a benign catch-phrase to sell a new religion. It existed before anyone was called a Christian. It was a Roman political term for an imperial announcement: usually the birth of a new emperor, or the success of some conquest or other. In the ears of first century Jewish men and women, it meant self righteous lies and propaganda from the oppressor. The gospel of Rome routinely replayed the message: Caesar is lord and son of god. He brings wars to end and begins the new age. His divinely ordained peace comes at the righteous end of the Roman short sword. His conquering armies, occupying soldiers, blanket taxation and crucifixion of rebels were all justified by the Roman peace which they made possible. This was the Rome’s Good News.
So when Mark begins with “The gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” he begins by giving Caesar’s empire the finger. While Christians today ponder what the gospel is the first readers would be immediately struck by what it is not. The gospel is a rejection Rome’s gospel of military might, security through force and peace through violence. It was, rather, committed from the start to enemy-love, non-violent resistance, grace and forgiveness. This commitment was held across the board for the first few centuries of the Church, and it was their open rejection of the Caesar’s gospel that lead to the political executions of countless men and women from this benign little sect of Judaism.
There is a book I keep returning to: Society Must be Defended,* a series of lectures by Michel Foucault. It begins by quoting Petrarch’s famous maxim “all history is praise of Rome.” The lectures go on to sketch European history and politics as a sort of perpetual war for power in which everyone appeals to fables of Roman lineage, and tries to re-create Rome in their own image. Ironically, the history of the “Christian” West has, according to Foucault, been forever infatuated with Caesar’s gospel, which the Christians defined themselves against. This is true once again today.
Our Quiet War in Yemen
Here is a morbid irony, that a country which whose Prime Minister declared it a “Christian country” sells billions of pounds of weapons to a regime who still consider crucifixion an appropriate punishment for rebels. We’ve been selling arms to the Saudi regime since Thatcher’s day. Under Cameron’s government we sold them 6 billion pounds worth. Last year the Saudi regime beheaded more people than Daesh did, but we still supported their appointment to the human rights council of the UN. When pressed on the matter. Cameron said it was because we rely on them for anti-terrorism intelligence. It is our British bombs they are dropping on the people of Yemen, and our British military personnel who are providing logistical support. And yet our quiet war in Yemen has hardly been big news. I keep speaking to people who didn’t know it was happening.
Meanwhile in Yemen, here’s a protest against the war that we’re supporting…
Last week, the day before parliament broke up for recess, a report into breaches of international humanitarian (IHL) law in the war on Yemen was quietly amended.
So, the statement: “we have assessed that there has not been a breach of IHL by the coalition”.. has been reworded like this: “we have not assessed that there has been a breach of IHL by the coalition.”
And, “our judgement is that there is no evidence that IHL has been breached.” has become: “…we have been unable to assess that there has been a breach of IHL.”
In short: are we our brother’s keeper? While the Middle East descends into war and chaos, we refuse to let in more than a handful of the many made destitute, while continuing to make money selling arms into the region. We hold to the Roman gospel that peace only comes at the end of a sword.
On a thematically related note – and since it’s also recent news – our new Prime Minister Theresa May just declared that she would use nuclear weapons. She says this because she knows that, here, Caesar is lord, and a leader who rejects the sword will be destroyed by the press, as Corbyn was when he said he wouldn’t push the button. I hope the larger point here will not be lost amongst names from the party political circus. The point is that our leaders are subject to the sword of Rome, as much as they wield it. It is an it, which must be obeyed by those who wish to hold power.
Why information like this? Why waste more time and more words on the constant orgy of online political discontent?
Firstly, I think we must begin by knowing who we are and where we stand and where we begin from. I think we ought to know, and not resent knowing, something of the violence, murder and bloodshed our country is complicit in. And that in spite of our continuing contributions to the violence shredding Middle Eastern countries, we continue to do very little for those who are displaced. Those of us who hold to the Gospel of Jesus ought to ask ourselves how, then, we stand against Caesar’s gospel, even as we stand within it. If our thoughts above hold, then our confession of the gospel must be a confession against our country’s arms trade, for one thing. I think prayers of sorrow, mourning, lament, dust and ashes would help us find ourselves where we really are (alongside Nineveh). We can’t begin until we know where we are.
Secondly, while I say that the Gospel stands implicitly against this militarised gospel of Rome, it is not, at its core, a negative concept. It is not merely anti-Rome, anti-violence, anti-imperialist etc (though it is also all of these things). It is also a thing in itself. The first Christians were very clever in subverting Rome’s propaganda, but they didn’t waste all their words slinging mud from the sidelines at the corrupt politicians of their day. They were far more interested in making space for another kind of politics to emerge; another kind of social order, another kind of life, in all its fullness. They made space for this with their own hands, since they knew it would not be forthcoming from the powers that be, who believed in the wrong gospel. This is, I think, the task. More on this another time.
In Praise of Rome comes from the record Welcome the stranger, which you can buy for a donation here. All proceeds go to help refugees in Calais.
*This book is fascinating from an anti-empire theological perspective, because the manifestation of empire in the NT is, of course, Rome; and Foucault’s lectures play on the notion that much of Western history has been a nostalgic desire to re-create Roman imperial greatness. So, the same Kingdom and Empire, both born within a lifetime of each other, have continued their antagonism ever since.