Ian and I were in Istanbul last week. It’s a city we’ve come to love and this was our fourth visit. A friend asked why we keep going back and, for me, at least it’s because I am fascinated with the history of the place – and the city is full of the history of three empires.
It was originally a Greek city, Byzantium, that was subsumed into the Roman Empire. Constantine decided to move his capital there, from Rome, in the 4th Century and he raided the Roman Empire for building material, artefacts and precious metals to make his new city look good. He built a huge church, dedicated to Holy Wisdom and made the bishop of Constantinople – as the city became – as important as the bishop of Rome.
Constantine’s original church fell down in an earthquake and a successor emperor, Justinian, built what stands there now. It’s one of the oldest churches in the world. The building is still amazing – Russian visitors in the 10th Century saw the building and the liturgy held within it and thought they were seeing heaven on earth and, as a result, a Christian mission to Russia started.
In the years after Constantine the city became the centre of the Eastern Roman Empire and, after the Roman empire in the west fell apart it became the last vestige of the Roman world. Over the years, however, it became less Roman as Greek replaced Latin – though even today, in Turkish, the Greek Orthodox citizens are referred to as Romans. At one point the eastern empire went up to the borders of what we’d now call Iran and Iraq to the east and beyond the Balkans in the west.
But then a new empire arose and, over 200 years or so, the Ottoman Turks took more and more of the territory of the Greeks and formed their own empire. In 1453 the Turks conquered Constantinople and Islamic prayer was offered for the first time in the church of the Holy Wisdom which became, like many churches in the city, a mosque. Many inhabitants were killed defending the city, survivors were sold into slavery – though Mehmet, the sultan, freed his own allocation of slaves and allowed them to continue to live in the city.
As the city changed into Istanbul it became the centre of another empire – this time a Muslim one. New mosques were built – each one trying, but I think failing, to rival the beauty and ingenuity of the church of the Holy Wisdom. Mehmet saw himself as the successor to the Roman emperors and his empire took in large parts of Europe – the countries that made up Yugoslavia became part of his empire, he got within firing distance of Vienna and dreamt of marching on Rome. Mehmet moved people from all over his empire into the city – Jews, Christians, and Muslims. People from all over Europe and all over Anatolia and it became a very tolerant – for its age – city.
By the dawn of the 20th Century, however, the Ottoman empire was falling apart. From the ruins of the First World War the Turkish State was formed to become more nationalistic than the empire, more religiously uniform and much smaller. The Ottoman empire went the same way as the Byzantine and Roman empires before them as new forms of imperial power rose in Europe and, since then, different sorts of imperial power now reign in our world. Empires based on capital, trade and vested interests more than emperors and despots.
So I am fascinated by this rich history and the record of the past that can be seen on every street corner – mosques that used to be churches, museums that used to be mosques, ruins originally built as part of the Roman empire.
But there is another empire which was centred on Constantinople – Christendom. Constantine wanted Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire partly from his own convictions and partly because he wanted some spiritual glue to unite his disparate peoples. He made bishops senior functionaries of the state – prelates. In his era bishops became more like princes, sitting on thrones, wearing more elaborate robes borrowed from the Roman state. Constantine had absolutely no patience with theological debate – unlike his Christian subjects! He hosted various Church councils – including the famous Council of Nicea – in order to sort out the squabbles of his day but I’m left with the feeling that religion was a form of social control for him. The Christian empire fused loyalty to God with loyalty to the state – it was a dangerous combination; those of us in Free Churches are probably more attuned to this danger than those in the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches which are more wedded to the structure of empire than we are.
Alongside my fascination with the imperial history of Istanbul is a horror of empire – it’s quite a contradiction. I’m deeply interested in the history of empire but see it has being one of the most troubling things in human history. Every incarnation of the city, every imperial project has had religion at its heart. The original paganism of the Romans gave way to the Christianity of Constantine. The Greeks who lived in the city for the next 1,000 years were passionately interested in the most obscure theological debates and were known for their religious observance, their love of their churches, the beauty of their icons. They also regularly deposed their emperors, hacking them to pieces or finding other brutal ways to murder them. They used very deceitful methods in their foreign policy to protect their interests.
The Turks also based their empire on religion – Islam not Christianity – but Mehmet, the conqueror, wasn’t an ideal Muslim. He was bisexual, had four wives, numerous concubines and had a roving eye for young guys; he drank alcohol and was very tolerant of non-Muslim minorities. He was, and is, revered as the conqueror of Istanbul – and Muslim faithful still visit his tomb to pray and venerate him but he was in awe of the empire and culture he conquered and tried to emulate it as he rebuilt the city. His empire was more tolerant than the Christian one he destroyed but the Ottomans were capable, as were the Greeks before them, of dreadful acts. Mehmet started the practice of fratricide in the Imperial family. The Ottomans didn’t assume that the firstborn male would succeed to the throne – but the son that took control of the empire would, quickly, consolidate his hold on power by killing his brothers. Mehmed had a baby brother whom he had killed so as not to be a threat to him in the future. His own children were killed by his son, Beyazit, who succeeded him and this tradition carried on into the 1800s.
So Istanbul is a city of three, perhaps four if you include Christendom, empires – all of which are now long gone and seen only in the architecture and racial mix of the people. All the empires were founded on religion and used religion to their own ends, all had great beauty, creativity and God’s presence can be seen in these things, but all were violent, despotic and, in the final analysis, put human interest and politics above ideas of God and His kingdom. This is, I think, the dilemma of empire. Like any human society God is present in the midst of it, but empire is particularly tempted to reject the values of the Kingdom of God in favour of earthly realms.
Empire at the heart of today’s long Passion reading. Jesus critiques and lampoons Roman power and authority and, in that first Holy Week, engineered two demonstrations against it – the triumphal entry into Jerusalem we celebrate today and the cleansing of the Temple which the Synoptic Gospels place in Holy Week. Jesus contrasts in his own life and ministry the power of empire with the power of the cross, the power of patriarchy, with the power of the humble, the power of might, violence and force, with the power of love. And, of course, Jesus ultimately has to pay the cost for standing up against the imperial might of Rome.
Some (More) History
We know that Judea in Jesus’ time was ruled by the Romans. A Roman (sub) governor, Pontius Pilate, was appointed to run most of what we’d now call Israel – alongside the puppet king Herod. Pilate was answerable to the governor of Syria and, through him, the Roman Emperor. Pilate didn’t live in Jerusalem but in the new, Roman, city of Ceasarea but he had a headquarters in Jerusalem and would bring himself, and his troops into the city at various parts of the year. On that first Sunday Pilate would have brought his troops into Jerusalem in readiness for Passover.
Jewish people, then and now, like, if at all possible, to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. Passover is a festival of freedom commemorating, as it does, the sovereign acts of God in leading the Jews out of Egyptian captivity and into the wilderness as preparation for their entry into the Promised Land. It’s a festival that looks back at what God has done, and reminds people of God being concerned with freedom and liberation. It’s a festival which remembers God’s judgement against the imperial designs of the Egyptians. Just as liberation theologians in Latin America in the 80s and 90s used the Exodus from Egypt as a great metaphor of God’s concern with the poor and the oppressed, so Jews in Jesus’ day would have been excited by the great themes of Passover. The Romans wouldn’t have been so excited – after all the Gospel is rarely good news for the oppressor. So it was prudent for the governor to bring the troops into Jerusalem, to have a physical force capable of putting down any revolt before it got too serious.
However, Roman control over Jewish life was pretty complete. The Jews had to pay taxes to the Romans – at extortionate rates as tax collectors charged more than they had, themselves, paid to the imperial treasury. They had Roman troops in most of their land and had a puppet king, Herod, ruling over a large part of them. To make matters worse, Herod’s father, another Herod, had erected a Roman Eagle – symbol of the Empire, just outside the Temple. As people came to worship at the Temple there was a visible reminder of the power of Rome – and, to add insult to injury, that visible reminder was, itself, a graven image. The Romans also appointed the High Priests – just to ensure that religion couldn’t be used as way of fermenting revolt.
So this is the context of Jesus’ last week: an excitable people buoyed up with hopes of liberation from their long-distant past, a festival which proclaimed that God freed His Chosen People, nervous, but brutal, imperial overlords and compliant, but worried, puppet religious and political leaders. Into this mix Jesus comes and has two demonstrations which cast the die firmly against him.
The first demonstration is what we celebrate today – his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Pilate rides in on a stallion with his soldiers embodying the might and power of Rome. Jesus rides in on a humble donkey which is still nursing its colt. Imperial power contrasted with something very different. But, his demonstration is much more than this. Ancient prophecy from Zechariah foretold the Messiah would enter Jerusalem on a humble donkey – in contrast to the imperial enemy of the day – the Greeks. The Jewish crowd would have understood this allusion, they would have seen the contrast with the might and power of Rome and so hailed Jesus as their king, strewing the way with cloaks and palm branches.
The Romans and religious authorities wouldn’t have been impressed but the crowds around Jesus were huge and they couldn’t get to him. St Mark implies that every night Jesus withdrew from Jerusalem to Bethany where he was safer.
The second demonstration, perhaps on Monday, was when Jesus went and caused the upset in the Temple. Here he critiques the authorities who run the Temple and the power of money. There is an indirect challenge to Rome again as the Romans appointed the High Priest. Again the crowd protected him.
The authorities can only get to Jesus because Judas – for whatever reason – betrays him and they find him in a quiet garden and lead him off to his fate – but try him at night when the crowd can’t intervene on his behalf. Empires may think themselves strong but have to rule and dominate through the misuse of power, through torture, betrayal, corruption and deceit.
So what are the meanings of all this? We are used to thinking about the theological meanings of Jesus’ death – many of the hymns – both ancient and modern – sung in Holy Week and on Good Friday try to explain why Jesus had to die. They talk about him dying for our sins, taking the place which was rightfully ours, his blood making us clean. These are all powerful images and they can be very useful. But like all images they are partial because they tend to ignore the political dimension to all this. Few hymns focus on Jesus’ demonstrations against Empire, few focus on the misuse of power by the Romans and the religious authorities, few focus on the interaction between Jesus and Pilate seen, particularly, in St John’s Gospel where Jesus isn’t cowed before the imperial power but tells Pilate he only has authority because God allows it.
I think it’s good to focus on the cross and what it tells us about justice and power.
The power of this world couldn’t cope with Jesus. Imperial systems can’t cope with dissent and struggle when the glue that holds them together – often religion – is challenged.
The powers of this world can’t cope with the Kingdom of God as it breaks in and changes everything.
The powers of this world are interested in control and capital, division and separation, shirkers and strivers.
The Kingdom of God is about changing places, the first being last, the hungry being filled, the poor finding their voice and their power. The proclamation of this Good News – that in God everything is different – is always a challenge. Political leaders looked very uncomfortable when Justin Welby berated their policies during his enthronement service on Thursday. People are enchanted with the new pope, but the president of Argentina is less impressed as she has been at the harsh end of his critiques for some time – critiques, in the main, based on his understanding of the place of the poor in the world. It remains to be seen how he will call the imperial powers of capital and repression to account.
The imperial powers of our world exercise a power over people, a power that divides, a power that is cruel and ruthless, a power that is concerned with the greater good of the rulers not the ruled. The Kingdom of God is based on power with, on raising the poor and the lowly, on turning the tables, on putting things right, on justice.
The cross reminds us that imperial power will always deal ruthlessly with the incarnation of God’s justice which subverts the status quo of our world, which challenges oppression. The resurrection reminds us that death isn’t the end, that God vindicates those who follow him to the Cross, that we have hope in God’s coming kingdom.
Giles Fraser, this week, spoke about the new Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon at his enthronement and said that he felt the Gospel wasn’t about optimism but hope. Optimism is the idea that things will get better, somehow; that without any reason we feel that things will change. The Kingdom of God is about hope – hope in Christ that the tables will be turned, hope that through God’s grace, and in God’s time the Kingdom will fully come. It is about hope that we make a difference as we live by the values of the Kingdom which is breaking into our world.
The Kingdom of God offers empire, and the rest of us, just two choices – to cast their, and our, crowns down before the Throne of God or to be ourselves dethroned and to be merely ancient memories of past glory like those ancient memories which litter the streets of Istanbul.
© copyright Andy Braunston 2013
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new page 23 March 2013