A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Totalizing Agenda of Empire

The defining feature of Empire is its totalizing agenda. Everything and everyone must come under the service of the Empire. That certainly has implications for how empire relates to those outside its immediate influence but it equally involves how it subjugates those who reside in the empire.

Liberals have used the Empire motif for American international interventions under Republican leadership. It is a characterization worthy of reflection. But what about the Empire building of progressivism?

I remember reading this quote from Michael's blog a year ago. What recalled it to my mind is that I am currently writing an essay for a book to be published by InterVarsity Press, entitled Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not! Evaluating Empire Studies Today. In addition, I am presently reading Peter Leithart's thought-provoking book, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christianity. One of the points Leithart makes convincingly in his book is that the character of empire is not only one of "foreign policy" but of "domestic policy" as well. He writes of the reign of the Emperor Diocletian:

In taxation, in religious policy, in administration, he presided over an "activist" government that swept away earlier restraints and inserted state power into the details of daily life.... Not only did this result in a more intrusive Roman government, but it created a new class of bureaucrats whom Lactantius condemned as "rude and illiterate men" who had none of the eloquence of the traditional Roman elites (p. 44).

As I expressed approximately a year ago on this blog, the empire critique being leveled by the Christian political left during the activist foreign policy of George W. Bush had fallen strangely silent with the shift to an activist domestic policy that came to Washington DC with Barack Obama. It's not the case that the empire critique was necessarily all wrong during the Bush Administration, but that those who so strongly embraced it dropped it once the critique became an "inconvenient truth" in putting forward their own activist domestic agenda. As Michael Kruse also noted,

Thus, Empire isn't just about international expansionism but bringing every sphere of life under one authority placing those spheres into the service of that authority. True Anabaptists that I have known over the years get that. That is why they come out from society to be a separate witness. What I don't get are the self-proclaimed Hauerwasian Emergent style Anabaptists who level the Empire critique against Republican internationalism while actively and fervently campaigning for social progressivism. It strikes me merely as social progressivism dressed up in spiritual language.
One of the huge problems with the Christian political left and the Christian political right is that they level the empire critique when it furthers their political program and they ignore it when it stands in the way of what they desire to advance politically. It is true that the religious right does not employ the language of empire very often, but they certainly have been pointing to the totalizing domestic agenda of the left. Such is the character of empire whether or not one uses the terminology. And if empire was "a characterization worthy of reflection" during the Bush years, it is still worthy of reflection during the Obama presidency.

Three and a half years ago, Scot McKnight did a series of posts on the book Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, which attempted to make a case for Colossians as an anti-imperial tract. In one of his concluding posts, Scot says prophetically,

...I'm unpersuaded of the centrality of the empire theme in Colossians. It can be "read into" Colossians but I'm not so sure it is that easy to "read it out of" Colossians. The "image connection isn't persuasive to me; the lordship connection clearly has implications for empire — whether in Paul's mind or not.

...this book taps into the anti-Bush, welfare state-leaning critique of Western, esp USA culture and for this reason I predict, if a Democrat wins the next election, this book will no longer have any biting edge. Which is to say, it is a tract for our times for some of us. It is not an exposition of Colossians for all times.
Which is also to say that perhaps Christians have gone down the "empire road" without first mapping the trip knowing where the road would lead. Perhaps things are a little more complex. And perhaps this is one more example that demonstrates what I keep saying over and over, which most Christians on both sides of the political aisle reject-- that the rejection of the politics of the left and the right is necessary if the politics of the Kingdom is to be embodied by the church in its witness to the world. Michael Kruse ends his post thus:

My experience is that most of the Empire talk has little to do with robust theological analysis and much to do with legitimizing political agendas.
Exactly, Michael... exactly... and I find this to be of no surprise.


Daniel said...

One of the more interesting things I have observed over the last few years is how the howls of protest at the "evil" and "corrupt" government have quieted down.

Makes one wonder if the positions were really motivated by principle or by politics. One also wonders at the influence of popular mass media and the various personalities associated.

I think I might have to read Leithart's book.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Actually, I think there is plenty of howling going on over corrupt government... now from the political right. It's the left that by and large has nothing to say about corruption.

This, of course, is predictable. The problem again with partisanship on both sides is that one side tends to excuse their own while pointing out every picayunish thing on the other.