Roman occupation: Jesus and the militarized surveillance society

Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who allegedly leaked information on a massive government surveillance program by the National Security Agency, has said he did it because this spying is an “existential threat to democracy.”

The threat is that an increasingly militarized, surveillance society will stifle social (and religious!) reform and suppress vibrant dissent.

This isn’t exactly new.  The Romans (along with the Jewish Temple elite) did the same thing in Jesus’ time, minus the Internet of course!

Few Christians may focus on it, but it is important to realize how often Jesus of Nazareth taught his disciples “privately,” as in these verses from Luke 10:23-24: “Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”

You can miss the deeper meaning of Jesus teaching the disciples privately unless you know the context in which Jesus taught.  It is important to remember Jesus pursued his ministry under Roman military occupation, and with surveillance by Jewish Temple elites who cooperated with the Romans.

These may very well have been the real “prophets and kings” to whom Jesus refers who “desired to see,” or hear. Was the original meaning of Jesus teaching “privately” to prevent ‘seeing’ or ‘hearing’ as in eavesdropping?  It is not clear, of course, but the ministry of Jesus was considered dangerously subversive in his time, so it is no wonder that Jesus often taught the disciples “privately,” perhaps even to protect them from prying by political or religious elites.

Reformers need privacy and protection from the militarized surveillance state.

The FBI kept Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. under constant surveillance, the Pentagon spied on peaceful anti-Vietnam War protestors, and the government has also been spying on Occupy, a movement that protests against corruption, the unjust distribution of wealth in the country, and the excessive influence of big corporations on U.S. policies.

For more on why this is a threat to religious and civic freedom, read my Washington Post column, “The Edward Snowden Question.”



About Susan Thistlethwaite

I am President Emerita and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary; I write for the public here and in local papers. I am interested in what I call "public theology," or how deeper meaning is made and contested in the public square.
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