turning the world upside down: the Bible against American imperialism

empireToday’s post is an interview with Berry Friesen and John K. Stoner, authors of If Not Empire, What?: A Survey of the Bible.

The authors are deeply concerned that “empire” thinking is a threat to the earth. They also feel the Bible has something to say about it.

By surveying the Bible, they make the case that the Bible is a collection of diverse, and conflicting, “arguments about life, love, and power.” The Bible’s big argument, however, critiques “the imperial paradigm of domination and homicidal power” and offers, rather, “the peasant-and-commoner vision of compassion and community” (p. 6)

Stoner is a founding member of Every Church a Peace ChurchChristian Peacemaker Teams, and the KAIROS School of Spiritual Formation. Friesen’s career has taken him to into the practice of law, public policy advocacy for food security, good nutrition, and access to health care, and non-profit administrator at the Mennonite Central Committee.

More information on the book can be found at bib-and-empire.net.

1. Why did you write this book?
We perceive Western societies to have entered a time of moral crisis due to the highly aggressive policy of global domination being pursued by the USA and its allies.
We are being asked to tacitly accept the pursuit of this goal through perpetual war, torture, drone assassinations, weaponizing the internet, destructive sanctions, and proxies that use terror to destabilize other nations.

The Bible urges us to say “no” to this question, and we think it has the gravitas to prompt readers to reassess the path the political elite are taking us down. So in short, we wrote to encourage people to read the Bible with today’s imperial context in mind.

2. What’s the core message?
Though we continually sin and mess up, repentance and a communal life committed to justice, compassion and sustainability are within our grasp.

That’s what God wants for us and it is the message we see in the witness of the First Testament prophets, the life and death of Jesus and the first century assemblies of Jesus-followers.

But this inevitably requires confrontation with the imperial narrative, which distorts our perceptions through its all-encompassing power and exploits our vulnerabilities and fears.

Much of the Bible treats resistance to the empire as a given. The big question is how to resist in a way that doesn’t escalate the violence. Jesus’s life and death is the key to answering this question.

3. So, the biblical message overall is fundamentally “anti-empire.” What writers have influenced your thinking?
Wes Howard-Brook‘s work with First Testament texts shaped our thinking. Ched MyerN. T. Wright, and Doug Harink are scholars who impacted how we understand Second Testament texts.

4. How have you structured your book?
We start with seven short chapters that identify specific ways the worldview of many biblical writers was different from commonly-held worldviews of Westerners today.

Then we survey each book of the Bible, sometimes proceeding chronologically and sometimes thematically. This approach keeps us respectful of the fact that the Bible does not speak with one voice, but is an argument among contrasting perspectives.

We have not attempted to write a full-Bible commentary, but we do attempt to give readers a taste of what each book of the Bible has to say (if anything) about God’s intentions for us in organizing life and running the world.

We close with twenty prayers from the Bible and encourage readers to voice biblical prayers.

5. Who are you trying to reach with that message?
We want to reach young adults who often are keenly aware and suspicious of power dynamics, including the way imperial power is pushing human societies and the ecosystem toward collapse. We know many young adults are skeptical of the Bible, but we expect they will be very open to the way many biblical texts critique imperial power.

Among church attenders, we think many will appreciate a popular survey that includes insights and critiques that are standard fare in most any seminary. Many feel boxed in by clichéd approaches and will welcome an approach that is enthusiastic, yet displays a bit more rigor.

6. What pushback to you expect from critics?
Our book treats the development of Judaism in exile and the life of Jesus of Nazareth as acts of God within human history. We treat other stories, such as the David-and-Solomon account, as more similar to political propaganda than history.

Though our critics may characterize our approach as inconsistent, we see it as a reflection of the Bible’s own unique way of displaying our god-like power to create history for good or ill, and our responsibility to choose a way that is just, forgiving and sustainable.

Some will object to our characterization of the current US-led configuration of power as an empire, one as apt to use terror and brutality as any empire from biblical times.

Our book doesn’t try to convince the reader of this; it sticks close to the biblical texts, not the cause of the death and ruin visited on so many societies over the past 75 years. But by highlighting the biblical conversation about empire and our need for an alternative, we hope our book will nudge readers to read history and observe current events more keenly.

7. How might you respond to those who accuse you of undermining the authority of the Bible? 
We’ll first ask for specifics. They may have something to teach us. The full text is available on-line and via print-on-demand, and it can be corrected.

In general, we read the Bible is a collection of arguments about life, love and power. At first, the prophetic voice is vague and seems rather marginal, but then moves to center stage in Jesus and takes on structural character in the Jesus-following assemblies.

If we ignore this dynamic and view the entire Bible as speaking with equal authority throughout, we will find ourselves giving biblical authority to abhorrent ideas about God, support for imperial power, and the categorical condemnation of people who do not identify as Christian.

Important though these matters are, they are not of much interest to people outside the church. Instead, they want to know if the Bible provides any wisdom about how to organize life so it is both just and sustainable. That’s what our book focuses on.

8. How would you describe a community that reads this book, discerns its implications together, and then lives it out?  
It won’t necessarily call itself Christian, but it will embody faith that God is saving the world through compassion, forgiveness and nonviolent resistance. This is what we understand to have been the faith of Jesus; it was what empowered his courageous walk to the cross. And it is the faith the Apostle Paul calls us to.

It will be culture-forming, not power-seizing.

It will be keenly aware of and resistant to the existing empire’s effort to shape our worldview, perceptions and values. It will recognize how the empire exploits our weaknesses for its own ends by fighting on both sides of the so-called war on terrorism. It will have little interest in electing a favorite to the White House. And it will engage in ongoing repentance of the many ways it has absorbed imperial metrics of success.

It will understand itself as a public, political identity animated by God’s call to justice, forgiveness and care of Earth and will be eager to engage others with that call.

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  • Kim Fabricius

    Thanks. But what — in #3 — no Brueggemann as an influence on understanding First Testament texts, or John Dominic Crossan and Richard A. Horsley on Second Testament texts? Mind, the guys mentioned are terrific!

    As for the characterisation of the US as “empire”, the reply from Washington is: “Qui? Moi?

    • Andrew Dowling

      I think they are targeting their book for an evangelical audience, and unfortunately I think any shout out to “liberals” like Crossan and Horsley would automatically cause many to put on their “do not read because of demonic influence” list.

  • http://www.rruuaacchh.org/ John Fairfield

    Bravo! I just read the book, it’s all the authors here claim and more. The gospel calls us out for our faith in the beast–our faith that military dominance is the final guarantor of our security.

  • James

    When we read the Bible through a particular lens we run the risk of making some kind of liberation, for example, the focus and not attending to the whole. The only “empire” the biblical writers really care about is the Kingdom of God. How can we better serve the King of Kings?

    • http://thecuttingledge.com/ Phil Ledgerwood

      The biblical authors care about lots of empires, especially as they stand over and against the kingdom of God. Egypt, Babylon, Assyria – these empires and others dominate the landscape of the Old Testament, and no less the Roman empire in the New. The Kingdom of God posits a new emperor and a new dominion over and against Rome, and Rome takes notice. Nothing in the Bible presents the concept of the Kingdom of God as something that exists as some philosophical abstract in isolation from other, concrete empires.

      • James

        True, but ultimately the empires will heel. I was just reading about that today. “Many nations shall join themselves to the LORD on that day, and shall be my people; and I will dwell in your midst (Zechariah 2:11).”

        • http://thecuttingledge.com/ Phil Ledgerwood

          True, and this is one of the primary ways God will crush the other empires – by co-opting their citizens into His.

          But note, that prophecy in Zechariah is referring to the day that the Lord restores Judah and judges the nations who had dispersed her. These are very concrete powers that Zechariah is concerned with and a concrete political reality he foresees. This political reality has spiritual ramifications, but is primarily expressed through God’s actions in actual nations.

  • Striker

    The “new” biblical scholarship don’t look that new to me. It is still cherry-picking passages from the Bible to tell us how to think about a particular contemporary issue. Imperialism has been around longer than the Bible and addressed much more coherently and pointedly by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides.

  • stefanstackhouse

    We who live in the USA have had great blessings for which we should be thankful to God.

    Nevertheless, we must always remember that God will break the USA with a rod of iron and dash it to pieces like pottery, just as He will with all the other nations of the earth. (Psalm 2)

  • tortugas

    The
    opposite of Empire would be what? A loose aggregation of tribes, such
    as Israel’s twelve tribes or the thirteen American colonies, perhaps.
    What all groups share is ideology. Ideology tends to be the unifying
    principle of the group, enabling a common identity. For the Jews, it
    was the Law of Moses. For Americans, it would be The Constitution and
    The Bill of Rights. So, here’s the question: can you have a single
    unifying ideology, without a military and police force that enforces
    the legal aspects of that ideology? I don’t think so. Having a
    military and police force is absolutely necessary to maintain a civil
    society. One that exists according to the rule of law.
    However, once a nation becomes large enough to be a threat to it’s
    neighbors, there will be little to restrain it beyond the morality of
    it’s core ideology. On the other hand, if a group; country,
    tribe, nation etc. is too small, it’s influence will be negligible.
    Judaism and the bible thrived on the world stage because of it’s
    affiliation with Christianity, the world’s dominate religion. But,
    of course, there is no Christianity in the absence of Judaism. How,
    then, do you become a global influence without empire. Finally, is
    the world better off with an American/Christian or Anglo/Christian
    empire, or something else, like the Soviet Union, Babylon, Japan under
    emperor rule, etc. I think the answer is obvious. The bible may be against imperialism as it has essentially existed in history, but not necessarily against some form of
    empire.

    • dmasterson

      The language used in this article is used in a particular way, and shaped by a particular theology. I do not think “empire” is being used as you seem to understand it. Same word, very different definition.

      To answer your question, the opposite of Empire is Kingdom. It’s as much a theological concept as embodied reality. And trying to understand it according to the approach you’ve taken will only lead to misunderstandings and confusion. Reading the book the article is discussing will probably give you a better grasp of the way they’re using the language, which will allow you to understand and respond more accurately to what is being said.

      To give you an idea: Some of the key words and ideas you used (military enforcement, influence, dominate (or dominant)) are “empire” terms and ways of thinking. Kingdom ways of thinking turn all of that upside down and imagine a very different world.

      Edit: Re-reading this, I just wanted to make it clear that I was attempting to be helpful, not critical.


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