Published on Monday, December 29, 2003 by
Hijacking "Him" for Empire
by Ray McGovern

Put It On Your Shield…or on your Christmas card, as did Vice President Dick and Lynne Cheney:

“And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?”

This, of course, is not the first hijacking of “Him” for the needs of empire. In 312 before the great battle at the Milvian Bridge at Rome, Hijacker the Great, also known as Constantine, saw a cross in the sky with the words “In Hoc Signo Vinces” (“In This Sign You Will Conquer”). Constantine had a cross inscribed on his soldiers’ armor. The new “Christians” won the battle and lost Jesus’ message of nonviolence.

Several centuries later, “Deus Vult” (“God wills it”) was the inscription chosen by St. Peter’s successors as they dispatched crusaders to war in the Holy Land. And “Gott Mit Uns” decorated Nazi belt buckles.

So “He” was hijacked long ago, with countless imperial and other brutalities carried out in “His” name.

But wait. Was not “His” message a direct challenge to empire—in his day the Roman Empire and religious and civil collaborators in the Roman occupation? Isn’t that why the religious and civil authorities put their heads together and ended up torturing and executing him?

Had Jesus allowed himself to be co-opted by the empire and its Quislings, had he chosen to divorce his nonviolent but challenging vision from the politics of the day, he could have died peacefully in his bed—as did the leaders of the institutional church in Nazi Germany.

And we can too. All that is required is a mind-trick to convince ourselves that Jesus did not really mean to say what he said, that he did not really mean to do what he did in exposing the evil of empire. Help is at hand. It is easy to find a pastor preaching a domesticated Jesus—an ahistorical Jesus far more interested in “piety” than justice. I find myself wondering how the Cheneys’ pastor reacted to their Christmas card.

Often it takes a compassionate but truth-telling outsider to throw light on our country, its leaders, its policies. Bishop Peter Storey of South Africa, who walked the walk in his courageous, outspoken resistance to the apartheid regime, provides this prophetic word:

“I have often suggested to American Christians that the only way to understand their mission is to ask what it might have meant to witness faithfully to Jesus in the heart of the Roman Empire. Certainly, when I preach in the United States I feel, as I imagine the Apostle Paul did when he first passed through the gates of Rome—admiration for its people, awe at its manifest virtues, and resentment of its careless power.

“America’s preachers have a task more difficult, perhaps, than those faced by us under South Africa’s apartheid, or by Christians under Communism. We had obvious evils to engage; you have to unwrap your culture from years of red, white, and blue myth. You have to expose and confront the great disconnect between the kindness, compassion, and caring of most American people and the ruthless way American power is experienced, directly and indirectly, by the poor of the earth. You have to help good people see how they have let their institutions do their sinning for them.

“This is not easy among people who really believe that their country does nothing but good. But it is necessary, not only for their future, but for us all. All around the world there are those who believe in the basic goodness of the American people, who agonize with you in your pain, but also long to see your human goodness translated into a different, more compassionate way of relating with the rest of this bleeding planet.”

Let us begin the New Year with what Scripture calls “circumcised hearts,” before we ask that God bless America.

Ray McGovern ( is co-director of the Servant Leadership School, an inner-city outreach ministry inspired by the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC. His first career of 27 years as a CIA analyst taught him something of empire.