“When David’s time to die drew near, he charged his son Solomon, saying:…do not hold [Shimei] guiltless, for you are a wise man; you will know what you ought to do to him, and you must bring his gray head down with blood to Sheol.” (1 Kg 2.1, 9)

There is a deep pattern that runs through parts of the Bible and all of history, including our own as Americans. A brutal tyrant terrorizes a people, and a champion arises to challenge and violently defeat the tyrant. The champion is lauded as a hero. People flock to him seeking “justice” for their own causes. Power, wealth and fame gather to the hero. The hero dies and the mantel is passed to the next generation. But inherited power becomes in the younger generation a thing in itself, to be preserved and expanded by any means necessary, until the “heroic” lineage is indistinguishable from the original tyranny. And throughout the cycle, it is claimed that God is on “our” side.

Both ancient Judah’s King David and the Sicilian-American godfather, Vito Corleone, began as such “righteous” heroes. Over time, though, each became the very tyrants they had been celebrated for defeating. For example, we hear that David extorted Nabal, a rich landowner, who is saved only by his wife’s payoff. Praising her “good sense,” David remarks that had she not paid, “by morning there would not remain any [man] pissing against a wall” (1 Sam 25.34). Later, while a Philistine mercenary, David made a routine upon raiding a town of killing all witnesses (1 Sam 27.11). As his power increased, David overpowered the Jebusite town of Jerusalem, making it his headquarters and naming it after himself (2 Sam 5.5-9). And through all this pillaging and plundering, we are told “YHWH, the God of hosts, was with him” (2 Sam 5.10). Upon his deathbed, as we hear in the quote above, the old king issues orders to his successor to assassinate those who had opposed him.

How similar is the saga of the rise of Vito Corleone, and the establishment of the cold-hearted efficiency of his son, Michael. Perhaps more disturbing, though, is to see that this is also the pattern of American history. What began as a “righteous” revolt against King George III quickly became a wide-spread campaign of murder, theft and the expansion of power, as indigenous people were swept under the juggernaut. Now, the United States is integrated into the global corporate machine, mirroring the cold efficiency that underlies all effective empires. And like David-Solomon and the Corleones, sup-porters represent it as a holy cause.

Neither Solomon’s nor the Corleone’s extravagant, public worship makes them a faithful “Jew” or “Christian” nor does the invocation of God for American imperial adventure make this a “Christian nation.” Claiming God’s approval for violence and oppression reveals one to be an adherent of what I call the religion of empire, regardless of which institutional or traditional label one might hope to hide behind (see my recent book, “Come Out, My People!:” God’s Call Out of Empire In the Bible and Beyond). We who share a passionate belief in a loving Creator whose image is found in all humanity and whose overflowing beauty is known in all creation must witness constantly to the lie inherent in the religion of empire.

It is in the religion of creation that we find common ground to reject the Solomons, Corleones and others who would hijack “God” for the legitimation of empire. This struggle is as old as what we call “civilization.” A good entry point for the exploration of the struggle between these two religions is the figure of Abraham. Just as Jesus was not a “Christian,” Abraham was not a “Jew.” Rather, he was an ordinary person who heard an unidentified Voice call him “out” of empire and to follow wherever that Voice led. That is the story I will open up in my next post.


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