Zack Exley on Christianity and Empire

Over the last few years, I’ve gotten acquainted with a movement of Christians that is vibrant, enormous, and yet refuses to let itself be named or to take credit for any of its accomplishments. Some have named subsets or aspects of the movement — for example, “The New Monastics,” “The Emergent Church,” “Ordinary Radicals,” and even “Revolutionaries.” But there are millions of people swept up into this movement who have never even heard those phrases.

I grew up an atheist and a left-wing activist/organizer. I got a view into this movement only when I married a Christian and started going to church (the only way it was ever going to happen) a few years ago. When I first saw thousands of upper-middle-class, white, Southern suburbanites respond passionately to a sermon titled “Two Fists in the Face of Empire,” I knew that something incredible must be going on. Afterward, a minute of Googling revealed that the U.S. was already full of churches preaching that same “anti-empire” gospel — both mega- and mini-churches, suburban, rural, and urban. The movement is invisible to people outside the church (and to liberal mainline Christians) because it is strongest among “born-again” Christians — the kind who believe Jesus is really coming back, raise their hands in the air, weep in worship, and study the Bible every day because they believe it’s true. These folks have learned that most of their coworkers and classmates think all that stuff is bizarre, and so they keep it to themselves. In some ways, born-again Christians are as different from mainstream America as the Amish, but there are 100 million of them and they’re almost totally invisible.

I started weeping in worship services myself when I started to see what this movement was actually doing in people’s lives. It was taking very isolated, individualistic middle-class suburban people like me and breaking them open in all kinds of ways. Even though I had spent a lot of time working as a community and union organizer, I had always been careful to keep my life totally unentangled by the immediate needs and troubles of the people I was organizing — that’s what I was most comfortable with, and it’s also what I was taught to do by all my mentors.

I was organizing for “big” solutions and staying away from all the “little” stuff that to me just seemed too messy and complicated to ever solve anyway. But these young Christians I was meeting were “falling in love with each other across class and racial lines,” and wrestling with demons of poverty, addiction, community violence, family violence, sexual abuse, depression, hopeless schools, and all the other troubles that plague American life. They were “making redemptive history” by healing wounds and repairing families and communities one at a time. It’s really the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve had the opportunity to witness it up close in a dozen states and scores of giant mega-churches and tiny house groups.

And so it is with great hesitation that I have been trying to make a suggestion for an amendment to this movement.

As this movement has radically embraced “relational” one-on-one or neighborhood-level social change, it has just as radically shunned any kind of big-picture national and global collective social change. I’ve been arguing in a series of posts at my blog Revolution in Jesusland that the movement should not limit its imagination to only small and local modes of change, but should allow God to work through them at a national and global level too.

A few days ago, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove answered me very graciously here, but, in effect, said, “No, I think we’ll stay local for now”:

For many of us young evangelicals, the Moral Majority and its demise unveiled for us the deceptions of power. We walked away from politics as we knew it because we didn’t like who it made us. But we believe there is a better way, and we’ve tried to learn that Way from Jesus.

As I understand it, new monasticism is trying to learn what it means to live by the power of the Spirit in a world of competing powers. This means, first of all, that we give ourselves to prayer, trusting that there’s time to listen in a world of urgent needs. The most radical thing we can do in a world wrecked by injustice is to open our imaginations to prayer. If we want to transform the world, we have to begin with our own conversions. As Gandhi said, “We must be the change we seek.”

… New monasticism is not against political organizing, or, as Dr. King said in 1968, “taking the nonviolent movement international.” … But our witness there will only be credible if we’ve taken the time to be converted ourselves and to build communities of justice and peace where it is easier to be good. We won’t end global poverty until we learn to care for the poor in our communities. Our cries for world peace will fall on deaf ears until we learn to live peaceably as Christians.

But when I read the story of the Way of Jesus in the Bible, I don’t see him or his disciples limiting themselves only to prayer. I don’t see them waiting to perfect themselves before engaging their national community politically. The Jesus movement as presented in the Bible did live differently, but it didn’t set itself aside separately and neatly to live only as an example. Jesus didn’t lead his followers to form an intentional community set apart; he sent waves of disciples strategically all around the country to deliberately ignite a national movement — of highly imperfect people — that shook the foundation of empire. He didn’t only walk around saying profound things and hoping that people would get the point; he created intolerable confrontations with authority.

After Jesus, the Bible records the disciples organizing a networked movement of insurgent communities spanning the empire. In some ways, that movement was the inverse of the empire that it was trying to subvert: e.g., practicing enemy love in the face of state terror. But it also was a mirror image of the global reach of empire: e.g., it organized itself at lightning speed and on a global scale using the communication and transportation networks of the empire. (The New Testament itself is mostly made up of the equivalent of interoffice organizational e-mails written by first-century jet-set Christian organizers, constantly pushing, pulling, and teaching far-flung communities.)

On those points, the movement answers: “Okay, maybe, but Jesus never taught us to ‘take power.’ And so we must limit ourselves to witnessing from the ‘bottom’ and never try to put ourselves on ‘top’ in positions of power.”

In college, I had friends who went off to join a weird little secretive Maoist party that was active on campus. It was a crazy thing to watch as they transported themselves back in time to the China of the 1940s. All their calculations about making social change here in America were messed up because their paradigm was based on the regime that Mao Zedong’s communists lived under as young persecuted revolutionaries. I think there’s a bit of that going on with this movement of Christian revolutionaries today. Too often, they’re applying the Way of Jesus to our modern-day world as though nothing has changed since the first-century Roman Empire.

But haven’t 2,000 years of redemptive history taken place since then? Yes, many places in our societies still look a lot like Rome and many people still suffer violence at the hands of the state on a regular basis — and we can’t forget that. But thousands of years of resistance and subversion has borne fruit. There is something new. Most Christians today live in societies where we can remove, replace, and even become our own political leaders in peaceful elections. Is that an accident? Is it to be ignored? How tragic would it be if the body of Christ opened up new ways for humanity to work together, but Christians were too discouraged to try them? Yes, our democracies are flawed. But maybe the biggest problem with them is our lack of imagination in using them, and our lack of faith in ourselves as leaders. What if the disciples had approached Rome with a similar lack of imagination and faith in themselves? Reading the story of Jesus and the disciples, how often do you hear God telling us, “Hold back! Watch out! Be careful!” I don’t hear that at all. I hear instead, “Have faith in me, allow me to work through you, and go for it!”

Jesus lived under an empire that ruled primarily by the cross and the sword. Today we live under an empire that also tortures and kills — but that is not its primary mode. Our empire neutralizes its citizens with an idea — one so fundamental to our thinking that we often mistake it for a law of nature: that any attempt by humanity to determine its future intentionally and collectively will always result in failure. Of all people, Christians should not allow that modern ideology of empire to limit their imagination.

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Re-posted with permission from:

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