Becoming Estranged From Empire

PASSAGES FROM THE book of Hebrews show up in the lectionary every Sunday this month. In Ernst Käsemann’s landmark book The Wandering People of God, written in the context of 1930s Germany, this pastor and theologian characterizes the community described in the Epistle to the Hebrews as a people who wander in the wilderness of this world. “The basic posture of the bearer of [God’s] revelation should, in fact, be described as a wandering,” Käsemann writes; “the attitude of faith can only be described as wandering.” He locates the identity of the church in the biblical stories of Israel in the wilderness—the church as a people estranged from imperial power.

“I of course had in mind that radical Confessing Church which resisted the [Nazi] tyranny in Germany,” Käsemann wrote decades later, reflecting on his book as anti-fascist ecclesiology—a biblical theology for a German antifa church movement. When a society coheres around a nationalist identity that designates segments of the population as “other” and therefore a threat to patriotic unity, “the church must appear as a band of deserters.” To desert such nationalistic ideologies is to wander in search for Jesus because, according to Hebrews, he appears at the edge of society, outside the civic union, beyond the border—Jesus as the one who suffers “outside the city gate,” on the other side of the wall (Hebrews 13:12).

The last chapter of Hebrews invites the faithful to solidarity with Jesus, which involves a commitment to excluded people, to scapegoated populations: “Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured” (Hebrews 13:13).

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