Here’s a thought!
What if, in the parables, instead of Jesus saying, “The kingdom of God is . . .” or “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .”, he said, “The Corporation of God is . . .” or “The Corporation of heaven is . . . “?
Okay, he could never of said that, because corporations as we know them in 2020 did not really exist in 30 CE. But why would I want him to say this? It’s because I think that we have become inured to the word “kingdom”. The word “the kingdom” here in Greek is η βασιλεία (ee va-si-LEE-ah, at least in Standard Modern Greek pronunciation). Whether in ancient times or modern, it simply means a country that has a king or a queen – a monarchy. In Roman times the word was also used increasingly to refer to the Emperor, although, strictly speaking, the Emperor was not a king.
Now, when I think of monarchies I think of democracies like the UK, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Spain. The monarch is usually a positive thing, more symbolic of power than actually exercising it. In these constitutional monarchies the Queen or King establishes a personal link with the past of a country, while personifying the state and the people. It’s fairly benign.
I grew up in a monarchy. Elizabeth II has reigned over Canada since 1952. She is absent most of the time, which works out just fine. In her place the Governor General has exercised the royal prerogatives, such as inviting prime ministers to form governments, assenting to acts duly passed, and allowing for the prorogation of Parliament, and the directing that a writ be dropped to have an election. It is a great arrangement, because it is an almost entirely ceremonial role. The Governor-General is a temporary figure head, and most Canadians struggle to remember the name of the person at Rideau Hall. Her Majesty is on our banknotes and coins, but otherwise largely absent, thus saving us the costs of residences and security, and preserving the mystery of the Crown. I remember when Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, along with their two children came to British Columbia in 2016, and stayed at Government House in Victoria. We were glad to have them there, but just as glad to have them leave after a couple of weeks of traffic holdups and being inundated by the media with all things royal. Indeed, it’s such a good system that we have replicated it on a provincial scale, with ten Lieutenant Governors. Again, few people know, or care, who these people are. So, when I hear “The kingdom of God is like . . .” I have a positive association with the secular meaning of the word.
The Kingdom: Maybe Not So Positive
But I suspect that this was not necessarily so for those who listened to Jesus. They would have known the Roman Empire and its predecessors as foreigners who exercised sovereignty over Palestine and the people of Israel. Sometimes, as around the time of Jesus’s birth, they imposed client kings, such as Herod the Great. Other times they sent governors, such as Pontius Pilate. The Romans joined and divided up the units – provinces, kingdoms, tetrarchies – more or less at whim. The rulers, whatever form and origin they had, had two basic responsibilities – raise funds for Rome, and keep the peace. Thus when we hear of the activities of the Romans in the gospels we hear of them commanding soldiers and executing criminals, and the most hated and feared people were the tax collectors, who enriched themselves by taking a premium on what was owed to Caesar.
Of course, you might want to argue that Roman rule was good for Palestine. The scene above from Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) presents Jewish zealots and revolutionaries as if they were the same as modern Marxian terrorists such as the Baader–Meinhof Gang in West Germany of the ’70s, or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine faction of the PLO. The members of Monty Python, being British, and all but one the product of Oxbridge, were raised on the glories of the British Empire. People from the colonizing power do not always understand how harmful their regimes in other countries are; it’s possible that the Pythons were unaware of just how horrific colonialism had been for the peoples of the Americas, India, and Africa. The scene in the movie has often been brought up in casual conversation as an apologia for the British Empire. However, as
However, archaeology tells another story. Galilee appears to have been economically depressed in the time of Jesus, not because it was unproductive, but because the taxes were driving the people into penury. The revolution in 66-69 in Judea against Rome was violent and popular, although it was also doomed once the Roman armies began to move into the province to restore imperial rule.
For the past twenty-five years it has been a given in New Testament scholarship, across the spectrum of research, that there is a subversive anti-imperial theme in the gospels, letters, and Revelation.
- The Greek word “euangelion” good news was originally a word used to proclaim the great deeds of the Emperor.
- “Son of God” was a title applied to the current living emperor, as the deceased ones were all considered to have ascended into the heavens and become divine.
- Whereas the emperor was considered to be the savior of Rome, Jesus was the long-promised Jewish saviour, whose saving power would encompass all things.
- Revelation sets up the emperor and Rome as beast, opposed to Jesus Christ.
- Whereas those who benefited from Roman rule looked for the coming of the Emperor to a town or province, Christians looked to the coming of Jesus, who would judge the world at his second coming, and destroy all evil, and then hand the world over to God the Father.
- If Augustus was the saviour of Rome, Jesus was the saviour of the world. Tiberius claimed to be the son of the deified Augustus, but Jesus was the son of only true God.
Thus, when the first Christians heard “the kingdom of God/heaven”they would have understood it as being opposed to the imperial sovereignty of Rome – the emperor, the senate, its puppets and its collaborators.
Given that most of us do not experience secular kingdoms the way that the people in 1st Century Palestine and the lands around Mediterranean did, is there another metaphor we might use?
How about corporations?
Corporations for Good and Evil
The modern corporation only goes back a few centuries, and it has evolved significantly. The key thing is that a corporation – literally, a body of persons – lasts longer than any single person operating it or owning it. Originally corporations were founded by acts of legislatures, and were relatively rare things – the East India Company being an example. Today, in many parts of the world, setting up a corporation is a simple action, and can even be done online. There are corporations sole, where one person holds an office (like a bishop) and that corporation survives and is treated as the same person over decades and centuries regardless of who holds the office. Corporations are legal persons – they can hold and sell property, sue and be sued, and, in the United States, enjoy First Amendment rights. The Anglican Church in Greece, which is what the Diocese in Europe, Church of England is known by here in the Hellenic Republic, is just such a legal person, and so owns property, including the car I drive. Limited liability for corporations emerged in the 19th century, and so the failures of the corporation could not be ascribed to the owners; if a corporation went bankrupt, the creditors could not try and sue the owners.
Ideally corporations, like flesh and blood people, are good citizens. However, this is not always the case. Companies like Enron lied about their assets and liabilities in a mad pursuit of profit before anything. Bernie Madoff ran a brokerage firm that stole something like $18 billion from investors. The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway was responsible for the Lac Megantic rail disaster in 2003 which killed 47 people and caused $200 million damage. Some are not criminal, but people question their morality – thus, some people critique Facebook for not shutting down political lies and conspiracy theories, other disparage Amazon for not paying its employees adequately, and others look at tobacco companies and defense suppliers as merchants of death.
The 2003 movie The Corporation goes further, arguing that modern government policy and certain neo-liberal economic theory has created a situation in which corporations act like psychopaths. It suggests that, due to the priority of maximizing shareholder value, that corporations are characterized by:
- a callous disregard for the feelings of other people,
- an incapacity to maintain human relationships,
- a reckless disregard for the safety of others,
- a potential for deceitfulness (continual lying to deceive for profit),
- an incapacity to experience guilt,
- and a failure to conform to social norms and respect the law.
While the movie has been criticized for cherry picking its examples and data, even The Economist found it to be a coherent critique of a central part of the modern economy.
A Thought Experiment
Given the potentially problematic nature of corporations, might it be a more useful metaphor to use in place of “kingdom”? Try this:
[Jesus] said therefore, “What is the corporation of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” And again he said, “To what should I compare the corporation of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”
Does it change anything for you? Let me know in the comments if it makes any difference.