We discussed Adolf Hitler’s notion of leadership- the “Führerprinzip”, wielding absolute authority over the people. In many ways this was a replacement for the role of the Kaiser, who had been forced to abdicate in 1918- with the distinction that monarchy had been something handed down by “ancient” history, tradition, and God. By contrast Hitler believed in a thoroughly modern concept of a leader who struggled to impose his will on the nation (based on his distorted understanding of evolution, that all life is only a struggle for existence and dominance)- a concept of leadership that Bonhoeffer warned could turn out to be a “Verführer”, a seducer, one who misleads the people.
Hitler was successful partly because many Germans were searching for the sense of identity they felt they had in August 1914, but lost through the War and the Kaiser’s abdication, and which the political parties of the Weimar Republic could not supply. Many countries and nations similarly find themselves searching for a sense of unity and identity- a need which can easily be exploited by other “seducers”.
Our reading was from Acts chapter 20, verses 17 to 24 and 32 to 38, where Paul bids farewell to the elders of the Ephesus Church on his way to Jerusalem, part of the story of his ultimate journey to Rome, where he was martyred (though Acts does not tell that final part of the story). Luke parallels that journey with the journey of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem (Luke chapter 9, verse 51 to chapter 19, verse 28). Both tell of someone travelling to the centre of power to challenge its authority, and to die in the process. Acts has sometimes been read as painting a positive picture of the Roman Empire (in contrast to the Jewish leadership), but for the first readers of Acts, who knew the ending of Paul’s story, and despite the stories of some sympathetic Roman individuals and officials, it was obvious that Rome at heart would see the Gospel as a threat to its authority, and would seek to destroy it. In that sense Luke-Acts is wholly consistent with the attitude to Rome found in the Book of Revelation- both see the Imperial Power as something that claims divine authority, but which in the end is brought down by its arrogance and injustice. In that sense also the claims of Rome are not unlike the claims of Hitler and the Nazis (even if their effects were in many ways different).
Another way in which Acts has been understood is to see Paul’s journey as somehow to Rome “the centre of the world”- thus making Europe the centre of all future world history and the leader of a “Christian” civilisation. But Rome was not the world’s centre to people in Palestine at the time. They were well aware of great powers and empires further east, which were bitter rivals to Rome in the west. Rome was the Imperial power (the “beast”, to use the language of Daniel chapter 7) which ruled Palestine at the time. The Gospel went there, not to confirm its pre-eminence, but to challenge its pretentious claims, just as Jesus had challenged the authority of those who ruled in the Jerusalem Temple and had used their power (in collaboration with Rome) to distort God’s justice and love.
Some claim that religion and politics “do not mix”. But if the meaning of the word “religion” refers to the ties that bind people together into a coherent community, then religion is by definition political. The question is whether the “ties that bind” are a matter of power and force (whether military force or market forces) or of justice, respect and love, as they are for Jesus, and should be for the Church which follows Jesus.