Being in a class on the ethics of globalization this semester has highlighted an important question for me: In the U.S. context, what does Church have to do with Empire? What are the consequences of failing to ask this question? Provided Christ is described as the head of the Church in Ephesians, that could be a helpful starting point.
So related to this, I’ve been reading Joerg Rieger’s book Christ and Empire, and in the preface he makes an interesting differentiation between what he, Rieger, is concerned about, and what Richard Niebuhr was discussing in his classic work, Christ and Culture, which was published about 60 years ago. According to Rieger, Niebuhr assumes that culture is the overarching term that incorporates other specific developments in the world. In other words, Niebuhr doesn’t address the central role of power.
Now to be fair, Rieger is obviously not the first person to bring up the topic of empire. Great contemporary thinkers interviewed right here on Homebrewed like John Dominic Crossan and Walter Brueggemann, or the Jewish liberation theologian Marc Ellis, are good examples of many others who write about it.
And of course Niebuhr was writing with a different aim, so Rieger’s point is not to discredit Niebuhr, but rather to stress that the full impact of Jesus’ ministry surely cannot be grasped without paying serious attention to the Roman context and Jesus’ politically subversive actions therein – actions that were not merely incidental for achieving the greater purpose of his crucifixion, as might often be assumed, but actions that some have argued are the greater purpose for which the crucifixion itself was merely incidental![i]
But one doesn’t have to live in the wake of postcolonial theory and feminist theologies to grasp the importance of politics for faith and discipleship. Perhaps no one in recent history demonstrated this better than Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who willingly assumed leadership of an underground seminary and a politically resistant Christian community in hostile Nazi Germany – instead of remaining in the safety of the U.S. where he was offered the chance to use his gifts as a scholar and teacher.
For those of us who are counted among the “privileged” in some way or another, we are challenged by stories and witnesses like this to reflect on and listen to how God might be asking for fiercer protest and bolder kenotic living. And as Rieger warns, we must not be deceived when the “Empire displays strong tendencies to domesticate Christ and anything else that poses a challenge to its powers.”[iii] Whether these powers are expressed in terms of global financial capital, cheap labor, “free” trade or militarism, empire today is subtle but not less real. Under its shadow, can there really be a “neutral” position? It seems Jesus really forces us to count the cost of this “peace and security.”
On a more pragmatic level, and to get back to the first question about church, how would the church look, think, spend money, and worship differently if this question was brought up more often? For anyone interested, I’ve also written some about this lately on a blog post here and on the Relevant Magazine Church Blog.
[i] Joanne Marie Terrell, Power in the Blood? The Cross in the African American Experience (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2005), 142.
[ii] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Second Printing. (Harper & Row, 1954), 13.
[iii] Joerg Rieger, Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2007), 3.