The church at Philippi was the Apostle Paul’s first founding in Europe during his second missionary journey. Much earlier, in 358 BCE, King Philip II of Macedonia had taken the ancient town of Crenides, refounded and renovated it, and renamed it as Philippi. It was to be useful to him. The Romans had it beginning in 168 BCE; Rome unified the province of Macedonia in 146 BCE. A century later (42 BCE) a cluster of battles pitted the forces of Brutus and Cassius against the armies of Octavian and Mark Antony. In the end, their armies defeated, Cassius and Brutus killed themselves using their own swords. The battles of Philippi, important as they were at that moment, only cleared the way to the sickening storm of relationships and rivalries that ended in Octavian’s triumph over Mark Antony at the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Antony, with Cleopatra, died months later in Egypt.
I have skipped over the fascinating, abundant details, but only to get to a first point: Octavian is the nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, and he alone is left to claim rule of Rome–Lepidus, Brutus, Cassius, Mark Antony–all are gone. And as imperator, emperor, Octavian as Augustus Caesar holds the keys to the Sky-World, the Overworld of Roman pagan culture. In his book The Fruit of Lips, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy refers to the European emperors (Christians after a point in time who changed their primary allegiance!), evoking their status beginning with Augustus:
Because the emperor was the cosmocrator, he was lifted into the hub of the wheel to unite night and day, to reconcile the north where the sun never shines, with the south to which the polar stars of midnight never move. The emperor, the Son of Heaven as he was called in China, was the prime mover of a reconciled, a non-panicky, non-chaotic heaven and earth. His knowledge and compliance with the stars shielded the people from the panic of catastrophes. When the people of our days hold a President of the United States responsible for a world-wide depression, they follow in the footsteps of all ancient nations who believed that the eternal cycles could be perfected by a human being lifted into the hub of the wheel. The incense burned before the emperor’s statue was a means to enliven his nostrils so that he might smell the harmony and beauty of the universe. He who did not burn incense, who did not say Heil Hitler, destroyed the skyworld. He must die. (Fruit of Lips, 59)
My second point is that the Christian apostles, the Gospel writers, and the Apostle Paul preached, wrote, and lived in opposition to the “skyworld”. As Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy put it in reference to the Gospel of Mark (and the Gospels), “It was written by men who denied the emperor’s claim, and who, therefore, plunged those for whom they wrote the Gospel into imminent danger of death for high treason against the welfare of the empire.” (Fruit of Lips, 60) This statement helps us to comprehend the apocalyptic passages in Mark’s Gospel: the Christians defied and denied citizenship in such a Skyworld, and its true citizens spared no effort to eliminate or disable the opposing life-power of Christianity.
I am writing here about the antithesis (the opposition of Maranatha and pagan Anathema) that drives the battle between “the domain of darkness” (Colossians 1:13): “the rulers,” “powers,” “world forces of this darkness,” the “spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places,” (Ephesians 6:12) and the “authority and power and dominion” of the Christ (Ephesians 1:21). I want to emphasize that the same authority the Churches have invoked against the Caesars of any era, against Hitler and Stalin and Mao is the same authority that says confidently, “And He [God] put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church.” (Ephesians 1:22)
So, back to the main discussion: that same Paul the Apostle writes to the church at Philippi a century or more after the Roman generals contended for the chance to take charge in the Skyworld. Whether he or the Phillippians were thinking of this, I do not know. But I see the contrast and must speak about it.
In the Philippian letter, Paul writes, most probably from Rome, as a prisoner for Christ. He is among the least significant of persons. But in his humiliating circumstances he actually is identified with his Master, the selfsame servant who suffers. Paul shares the life of Christ–in chains. He had shared that life in many other painful, challenging ways. He reminds me of dozens of Baptists in England and North America during the 1600s and 1700s–Baptist “jailbirds” who were criminals, and for what? They were prosecuted and punished, as criminals, for preaching without “license” — without permission of the government, the authorities, and the state churches who took part in that scheme of authority through statute law. These Baptist jailbirds wrote letters, sermons, poetry, hymns, theologies, and other works, in and out of jail, and so we know about them now through their preserved works. To read more about them, take a look at Keith Durso’s book No Armor for the Back: Baptist Prison Writings, 1600s – 1700s.
The Apostle Paul also reminds me of another Baptist letter-writer, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who also stood up to the dominant authorities of the day. Surely Christ was with him, too, in the Birmingham jail, eloquently declaring and grieving that the churches of America had failed, and asking, “Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?” On the matter of racial injustice and segregation, the church was now “a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound,” a quiet thing functionally comforting to the Jim Crow establishment and the status quo, a hollow thing to repudiate in a new generation.
For Paul, “to live is Christ” meant to live in bondage–to service, to suffering, to others, to truth, to God’s continuous calling and presence. “To live is Christ” is to live in a bound condition, like Christ, to be bound tightly, to live within the limitations God imposes, and in that place, within those limitations, to be radically free. Others may see that kind of freedom as the worst kind of restriction, but no! In that kind of freedom I, and others, know who we are in relation to God, to ourselves, to others, to the world.
There are the walking prisoners, and there are those who walk free. There are none who walk entirely on their own. There are the prisoners who live in cells of steel and concrete, there are prisoners who dwell in dungeons of their own and others’ making–negativity, denial, dishonesty, classism, racism, violence, addictions, hatred, murder, theft, envy, demagoguery. There are those, most of the global community, who live in bondage to the dominant powers of the time and place–and of the Skyworld.
Powerful though he was, Augustus, and all others like him, were prisoners of a world system representing all that most men would pay heavily and struggle mightily to get. Please do not misunderstand. I do not agree with Augustus that the struggle of world systems–the struggle for empire–is a “zero-sum” game. I do believe, however, that only with the victory of “the children of light” is there the promise of any enduring, liberating future–or fulfilled present (Ephesians 5). Any other victory promises only degrees of a bondage that allows no true freedom. In the end, the Skyworld has no friends, only subjects and victims.