Oftentimes, as Christians, we take for granted that we know right out what it means to be “saved”. Since we know without a doubt what it means, we never question the genesis of that phrase. We assert that all people need saving and that Jesus is our savior, but where did this idea come from? The word for “savior” in Greek is soter. It was a name used of
the Caesar. Rome believed they had the divine right to rule the whole world. Allegedly mandated by the gods, Rome spread their military might and imperial ideology throughout the Mediterranean. As they did this, they enslaved the indigenous peoples, many of whom were already enslaved by the decaying Greek empire. Underlying this imperial expansion was the idea that the whole world was being “saved” by Rome and its savior, the Caesar. Romans believed gods saved people from diseases and other issues, and the Caesar represented Zeus, the savior-god, on earth. Naturally, by divine extension, the Caesar operated to “save” people. He frequently was known as the “lord (kyrios) and savior”. According to Rome the rest of the world suffered from a lack of “peace”, “security”, and “justice”. Rome promised to bring these things. This was the Roman salvation of the nations.
What actually happened looked significantly different than peace, security, or justice. Instead, Rome utilized there imperial holdings to gain slave labor and cheap goods. It made the Roman citizens wonderfully wealthy. Furthermore, despite all the peace they proclaimed, Rome constantly fought foreign wars. They spent vast amounts of resources on conquering Spain, France, North Africa, and even Britain which is a hefty distance from Italy. They stationed armies all across their empire to keep the peace and put down any resistance. The peace of Rome seemed more like constant war with soldiers breathing down your neck. While the Romans certainly asserted themselves as “lords”, they seemed to do very little saving and a lot of enslaving.
They used visual forms of communication to reinforce the belief that they, the Romans, were in charge. Without TV, internet, or radio, the Romans created statues all around the empire portraying Roman leaders as powerful, impenetrable, masculine, and not-to-be-messed-with. The them of these statues included the helplessness of the conquered peoples beneath the authority of Rome. On their coins the same stories were minted. Narratives of great battles won by the Romans reminded all people not to rebel against their “saviors”.
Ironically, much of the imperial propaganda was farcical. Many times, Rome purported to win a battle, when they in fact came to a diplomatic agreement. Despite all the hoopla surrounding great military victories, most people were no less secure or at peace. Romans dealt unjustly with everyone. They crucified people who stood against them, and they celebrated the demise of their enemies. Even the slaves and resources devoted to their imperial project could not sustain their military endeavors. While a few lived in lavish luxury, many starved in destitution. Everyone fell subject to Roman law; ethnic autonomy became the puppet strings of an authoritative regime. In a sense, Rome saved no one.
I say this because, when the early apostles claimed that if you followed Jesus as “lord” (kyrios) you would be “saved” (soteria), what most people needed saving from was the alleged “saviors”, the Romans. By proclaiming Jesus as “lord” who “saves”, the earliest followers of Jesus set him up directly against Caesar. They exposed Rome’s true nature: that of killing, raping, and destroying peoples, not saving.
I witnessed two intriguing responses to the death of Osama bin Laden today by Christians. The first propped up an empty patriotism that viewed bin Laden’s death as justice. Ultimately, after 9/11, the death of bin Laden was job one, yet it took almost a decade to accomplish. I read how many Christians hailed bin Laden’s death as right and good. The other response I witnessed was a saddened response to the celebratory response. These people mourned the ecstatic nature of a nation satisfied by its capacity to deal out death. They asserted rightly that Jesus does not celebrate the death of anyone. Nonetheless, I feel neither of these reactions, and the reason for this has to do with Rome.
Osama bin Laden posed a threat to the largest military power in the history of humanity,
the United States of America. The rhetoric revolving around the U.S. involves making the world “safe”, establishing “peace”, and pursuing “justice”. Of course, what the state politicians (i.e. Obama) fail to speak about are the countless lives lost in the pursuit of bin Laden. For several years, the U.S. has been bombing Northwestern Pakistan in the hopes of killing bin Laden. Over a thousand civilians died in these bombings, but bin Laden was over 120 miles away, completely safe from the drone bombings. In Afghanistan, the story is even worse. The U.S. war in Iraq killed hundreds of thousands of people so that they might be “saved” from Saddam Hussein and terrorists, not to mention the secret war in Yemen and the new war in Libya. When we look at the U.S. and their attempts to establish peace, security, and justice, what we find are pools of innocent blood spilled by bombs and guns. Moreover, all this work does little to provide any form of domestic security. Increasingly, U.S. citizens grow subject to more and more intrusive forms of searching. Excessive military spending in order to fund multiple simultaneous wars has, for all intents and purposes, bankrupted the federal government. Now social service programs are being cut as taxation of the poor and working classes is being increased. Nevertheless, people congregate at two in the morning to celebrate the greatness of the U.S.A. They proclaim justice and vindication. Is this what it looks like to find justice for 9/11? A trail of countless dead, aggressive foreign policy, skyrocketing debt, constant war, and all of it for the death of one man?
The U.S. set itself up like the Roman Empire. It proclaims peace even in the midst of destruction and war. It calls 10 long years of leveling the Middle East with bombs and shells justice. It calls shedding the blood of hundreds of thousands of innocents as the “eye” and “tooth” owed for 9/11. Even now, after Osama bin Laden died, the killing will not stop. The killing has not stopped. The military spending continues to climb. People continue to need actual salvation, and the gods of this world refuse to give it to them.
What should be our response to this event as Christians? Should it be mourning? Yes. But we should mourn not only for Osama bin Laden but for all those who died in the sociopathic pursuit of him by the U.S. empire. More importantly, we as Christians should take this time to point out the morally bankrupt, unjust, and violent structure that killed Osama bin Laden. We must stand up in the middle of the empire and say, “The kingdom of G-d is not of this world! This world that calls violence peace and the deaths of the innocent justice. Let us unite all, under the banner of the true President, Jesus, to stand against this evil age. No more will we be complicit in the imperial desire to enslave those it claims to save.” This moment, as it catalyzes people further into drunken, patriotic hysteria, should catalyze us, the followers of Jesus, into lives of true peace and justice.
What is my response to the death of Osama bin Laden? Proclaiming the G-d of the universe as the sole source of peace and justice in contradiction to the U.S.A.