Evangelicals and Empire, Part III: The Future

I should finally admit that I don’t know why they organized the book into sections called Present, Past, and Future.  I suppose there’s a bit of a theme of each, but it’s not very obvious.  I should also acknowledge that my summaries of each chapter have gotten shorter with each successive post.  This is for my benefit as much as yours (and probably benefits the book, too, because the chapters are all better than I can represent in these summaries).  Also, Yerba Mate isn’t working anymore, and the semester ends today.  So without further ado…

The third section of Evangelicals and Empire begins with two very difficult essays that critique Hardt and Negri’s notion of Empire and Multitude.  Chapter 15 notes that they reject transcendence and sovereignty, claiming them to always be part of Empire.  This notion is both simplistic and wrong, at very least because strict immanence makes political action – and thus Multitude – more difficult, if not impossible.  “Transcendence and transcending are ways to name the overcoming, countervailing, resistant edge of emancipatory spirit” (212).

Chapter 16 points out that Hardt and Negri ground their critique of Empire in the same soil that nourishes it: Europe.  Similarly, the current (re)turn to theology is to Western, Modern, Christian theology, what the author refers to as colonial/imperial theology, the same theological tradition that has been repeatedly used to justify Empire over the centuries.  We can’t simply modify or ignore the elements of this theology that get played by Empire, call it ‘evangelical’ and hope it will work better this time (which the author suggests as a critique of an otherwise admirable Jim Wallis); rather, we must formulate a theology of Empire from scratch.  As we’re told in Soc class, you can’t solve a problem from the same level that caused it, but this is precisely what Hardt and Negri try to do atheologically, and what many current theologies do as well.  An “ethic of opacity” is needed, which criticizes not only a concept but also its categories or frame, in this case Western or European categories and frames of thought that nourish Empire.  The reference to opacity here is not always clear (no pun intended), but as far as I can tell it tries to support the mystery of the other that colonialism tries to diminish: “The quest for transparency is a quest to conquer” (234).

Chapter 17 is an excellent article by Amos Yong and Samuel Zalanga, called “Which Empire, Which Multitude?”  It explores the connection between Americanism (civil religion) and Christianity, noting that the Church, like the rest of the world, needs to be freed from the economic models that have come to define even this part of life.  As Christianity is merged with Americanism, free market capitalism shows up in religious garb in the prosperity gospel, which, like free market capitalism, is spreading around the world (the authors here focus on Africa).  As this happens, the Church not only loses its prophetic function but begins to mimic Empire more and more: both minimize the role of social institutions in causing social issues, instead blaming the victims and causing them to internalize their issues.  In prosperity preaching, of course, this comes in the form of blaming poor health or poverty on a lack of faith, which is presented as the magic ingredient that will cause God to bless you with health and wealth.  The authors here point out that Hardt and Negri underestimate the power of religion when they claim that Multitude, being the victims of Empire, will naturally “be against” it.  In fact, because of its infiltration by and similarity to Empire, “Pentecostalism in the Global South seems to locally indigenize the goals of empire” by presenting prosperity as the highest good (242).  They provide examples of various common themes in African pentecostal preaching: because demons can influence people, or even institutions or nations, and faith is the cure, social forces and institutions – and even people – are let off the hook, not held accountable for their contribution to problems; the cure or salvation from such spirits is almost always mediated by some “man of God”, some “prophet”, who gains enormous power and frequently becomes authoritarian; and while Pentecostal movements often spring up among the lower classes, as members gain wealth they tend to become more bourgeois, distancing themselves from the poverty that must be a sign of evil or lack of faith.  It’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that, rather than Christianity, or Evangelicals, or particularly Pentecostals supporting Empire, these are cases of Empire co-opting Christianity.  The prosperity gospel is straight from American civil religion, and if that civil religion was ever indeed rooted in Christianity, it’s a long way removed now.

Chapter 18, “In Praise of Profanity” by Michael Horton, notes the sacred-only stance of Radical Orthodoxy and contrasts it with the secular-only stance of Hardt and Negri, and revisits the two-kingdoms theologies of Augustine and Calvin to articulate a theology of the secular that appeals to some form of universal, natural Law, allowing us to both affirm and interact with the sacred and the secular and implying the ability for a Christian response to Empire that Hardt and Negri leave little room for.

Chapter 19, “The Future of Evangelical Theology in an Age of Empire” notes that Anglo-American theology is dominant in the world and affects theology elsewhere, but it fails to recognize its own contextual basis and presuppositions: it is rooted in modern foundationalism and colonialism.  Foundationalism is the philosophical notion that we must begin with what we can be absolutely sure of (I think, therefore I am, for example), and then move upward from there, so that everything we claim to know is connected to a sure foundation that is beyond criticism.  Our theology is colonial because it fails to recognize its own subjectivities and presuppositions, and the fact that our knowledge is not necessarily better just because it comes from the West.  What we need is a theology that is post-foundational, in which all knowledge is open to criticism and need not develop in only one direction, and post-colonial, in that it must recognize its own context and deconstruct it, and that it must be open to hybridity (diversity within unity) –  not to be confused with syncretism, which is the forcing together of two different or opposing things, like when Jeroboam (perhaps unwittingly) said that Yahwism and Baalism were the same thing.

When discussing the role of Evangelicals in Empire, people love to throw around the term “Constantinianism”, which looks back at the rapid Christianizing of the Roman Empire after Constantine’s conversion and suggests that the same thing is happening with the American empire today.  In Chapter 20, “Evangelicalism and/as New Constantinianism”, Paul Lim challenges this notion, showing that Evanglicals have not co-opted the state, and indeed that religion never did, but rather vice versa (the state co-opted religion).  Lim points out that such claims see Evangelicals as all-white, conservative Americans, while increasingly most Evangelicals in the world are non-white and non-American, with conservatism being a non-issue.  He points out that for the state, self-interest is legitimate and even good: the state’s role is to look out for its people.  For the Church, however, the model is one of self-giving rather than self-interest.  He critiques Hardt and Negri’s notion of a “headless” multitude, pointing out that immanence and the quality of “being against” that unites the Multitude are not enough to realistically unite people; even if such a multitude could overthrow Empire, we’d be left with a new Empire and a new Multitude as other issues came to the fore.  In its place he points to Revelation, which describes another multitude with Christ as its head; this is yet another example of how Hardt and Negri’s vision is biblical or theological, yet denies all transcendence and sovereignty and theology.

The last chapter, “Love in Times of Empire”, is probably the best chapter in the book.  Hardt and Negri recognize love as a political force, and indeed claim that it is the only force that has the power to unite Multitude and overthrow Empire.  However, they fail to invoke it as a Christian virtue, or note how it has been inverted by Empire to allow evangelicals to relish in war, to “love (killing) your enemies.”  The authors, Mario Costa, Catherine Keller, and Anne Mercedes, beautifully articulate a theopolitics of love that I cannot do justice to here.  A few key points: agape (self-giving, unilateral) cannot be separated from eros (desiring the other’s desire, reciprocal), but rather initiates it by initiating relationship that becomes reciprocal; when God’s love for us (vertical) is expressed through love for neighbour (horizontal), it is God’s love working through ours; and though Empire and Multitude assume an almost Manichaean dualism (good/evil conflict), the love of enemy that Christ preached erases all such dualisms and polarities.  After all, in the same sermon (on the mount) in which Jesus spoke of loving enemies, he also articulated God’s love through providence, in which the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.  There’s much more good stuff here, and I highly encourage anyone to pick up this book if only for this chapter, but basically yet again we see that Hardt and Negri depend on a very theological notion of love, and yet deny theology.  They’re stealing our best stuff!

Over and over again it seems that Hardt and Negri’s thesis depends on good theology; in theory, the Church IS Multitude!  The fact that they insist on total immanence (though they deny that in the epilogue) robs them of the source, and thus the power, of the realities they attempt to describe and enact.  It’s clear that they’re Marxists (which they openly claim); Communism, too, seemed to miss out on the only Power that could have made it work.  But this connection between the good theory of Hardt and Negri and good theology also brings a more perplexing thought to mind: if the theory of Multitude makes for good theology, then why is the Church so commonly implicated in Empire?  While many of the writers in this collection have shown that evangelicals are not as strongly implicated as may first appear, the question must be answered, how did the Church allow such an integration of Christianity and Americanism to develop to this point?  And why isn’t the Church condemning this connection?  And how can we develop and articulate and enact a theology to correct the issue?  These questions are ultimately the purpose of this book, but answers are only hinted at within.  I would suggest that a central task of the Church in the beginning of the 21st century, particularly the American Church, is to answer these questions thoroughly and in so doing develop and enact a more robust ecclesiology and Christian ethic.

Thanks for a good semester, folks.  Merry Christmas.

Evangelicals and Empire, Part II: The Past

The second section of the book explores the connection between Christians and Empire in the past, focusing predominantly on Latin America and exploring the relationship of Pentecostals both to “evangelicals” and to Empire.

In chapter 8, Patrick Provost-Smith attempts to trace the genealogies of imperium and evangelium, noting how interconnected they were in imperial Spain, where an Augustinian notion of sovereignty as a gift of God was used to underwrite Spanish imperialism.  He described the imperial ambitions of the conquistadors, relating the story of how, after he had conquered the Philippines and named it after King Philip, one conquistador wrote to the King urging him to invade China, commenting on the wealth of goods and souls to be won there.  His rhetoric implied that God’s providence had given them the ability and the opportunity to conquer such pagan lands, for the benefit of all and most especially for God.  On returning to Mexico, this particular conquistador was arrested by the religious authorities, the Benedictine and Jesuit missionaries who opposed and criticised the Spanish conquest and colonization of the natives.  Though these monks and missionaries certainly would not fall into any modern definition of “evangelical”, their primary purpose was evangelization and the wellbeing of the people to whom they ministered.

Juan Martinez picks up on these notions in chapter 11, “Stepchildren of the Empire”.  After the US wrested control of the south-west from Mexico, many Mexican landowners stayed under the hope that they could keep their lands and livelihood.  They were wrong; Mexicans who lived in what became the American south-west were (and are) treated as colonized peoples.  Protestant leaders opposed the war at the time, but sought eagerly to evanglize the Catholic Mexicans, both for their own sake (which reeks of colonial marginalization of culture and religion, especially because it’s one Christian group over another) and to get a foothold in Latin America, which was almost entirely Catholic.  Evangelization was closely tied to Americanization (again, typically colonial), and the newly Protestant Mexicans were called evangelicos, a name they keep today.  But evangelicos were never allowed to fully integrate into the white Church, just as Mexicans have never really been able to integrate into white America, always treated as 2nd class citizens and even scapegoats for problems in the US.  Though rejected by white Protestants and the Catholic church that they left behind, evangelicos are growing in number, and are no longer a sub-group of white Protestants: rather than being a result of immigration and Americanization, these churches are growing in Latin America and then coming up with immigrants.  At the same time, white Protestant churches are doing a better job at integration, with many evangelicos going mainstream.  Catholicism is not exempt, with 40% of American Catholics now being latino/a.  The very presence of Latin Americans in churches in the US serves as impetus for resistance to Empire and the racism that is inherent to it: “The mere presence of undocumented evangelicos in evangelical churches challenges the practice of calling them criminals and wanting to ‘shut’ the border” (151).

Race is also central in chapter 12, which focuses on the racism that is inherent to Empire and the Christian responses of Jesse Jackson and Jim Wallis.  The authors note that Hardt and Negri reduce race to a subelement of multitude, subordinating the issue of race to economic or class concerns; race is apparently only important to them as a force to instigate Multitude, and when race is no longer a driving force of Multitude it loses importance.  The authors point out that the civil rights movements of the 1960’s began dealing with race relations and ended up dealing with economic inequality among all people groups.  They note that Black evangelicals, who were once much more united behind evangelical activists like Jesse Jackson, have increasingly become follows of the pietistic prosperity movements in evangelicalism (the same movement criticised as Abrahamic religion in Part I) as the Black middle class grows.  This suggests at least two types of “evangelicals”, those interested in social justice (potentially Multitude) and those interested in personal pietism and prosperity (potentially Empire).  The authors hold up the social activism coalitions of Jesse Jackson (PUSH/Rainbow Coalition) and Jim Wallis (Sojourners/Call to Renewal) as examples of evangelicals “actualizing multitudes…to collectively resist injustice” (168).

Chapter 13, “Where are the Pentecostals in an Age of Empire?”, also focuses on Latin America.  It begins by pointing out that “evangelicalism” and “pentecostalism” are both difficult to define, so we cannot simply conflate Pentecostals with Evangelicals despite the tendency of many to do so.  Likewise, we cannot necessarily connect Pentecostals to Empire: though they appear similar in some respects (both challenging old notions of power, both privileging innovation and novelty), Hardt and Negri’s description of Empire is based firmly in Western/European power structures and cultures, while Pentecostalism more often represents a large variety of voices.  The authors describe the impact of Empire in El Salvador, including death squads and many types of official persecution, arguing that evangelicos in general and Pentecostals in particular provided a powerful presence that represents Multitude.  Ultimately, the answer to the question “Where are the Pentecostals in an Age of Empire?” is “In the Spirit!”  The utopian ideals of Pentecostals do not align with those of Empire OR Multitude, but are centred on the Holy Spirit’s power to transform entire communities.

In chapter 10, “Political Complexities and Rivalries of Pneuma and Imperia”, Kurt Anders Richardson looks to pneumatology (theology of the Holy Spirit) as a necessary addition to Hardt and Negri’s notion of democracy based on love.  “What is lacking” in Hardt and Negri, Richardson claims, “is any reference to the sources of love necessary to sustain conditions of political and social survival and stability” (132).  He cites Paul’s spiritual, political theology and suggests that evangelicals must develop such theologies today.  He cites Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, and his radical notion of complete religious freedom on theological grounds, as an example of a radical political theology that resists any religious notion of Empire.  The Church today has not f ormulated much of a response to Empire, but it has the means and the mandate to do so.

In chapter 9, “Empire’s Future Religion”, Sebastien Fath looks at the relationship between Neoconservatives (representing Empire) and evangelicals, noting that though they have an apparent alliance in the Religious Right in America, they are both governed by different eschatologies (theologies of last things/end times) that are ultimately incompatible.  Neocons are secular and often heavily invested in American civil religion, which puts the state in the place of God, and they follow a post-millennial eschatology.  In short, postmillennialism is the belief that through evangelism and social action we can eventually make a perfect world, with Christ (or in this case, America) finally recognized by all as the true King.  In contrast, most American evangelicals are premillennialists, who believe that Christ will return to judge the world, destroy it, and remake it because it will not improve without the direct action of God.  Evangelicals preach not because they think they can change the world, but because they want everyone to be saved from the coming wrath of God.  Otherwise, they’re concerned only with safeguarding the values of their community while they await the end (which goes very well with James Davison Hunter’s critique of the Religous Right’s response to secular culture in To Change the World).  This eschatological difference is often missed, but could provide the impetus for Evangelicals to resist Empire.  However, contra to Hardt and Negri’s notion of multitude which focuses on immanence, Evangelicals focus (often to extremes) on the transcendence of the returning Christ – meaning that Multitude under Hardt and Negri’s description is insufficient.

The final chapter of this section (ch.14) is a fascinating and candid conversation between Donald W. Dayton and Christian T. Collins Winn.  Winn, for the most part, interviews Dayton about the notion of “evangelicals”.  Dayton describes the history of the term, and how it ceased to be a useful term at least in the 1970’s, if not before.  The American habit of classifying everything on a Liberal/Conservative spectrum has meant that, in large part, the antonym of “evangelical” has been “liberal”, yet there are at least three different meanings of “evangelical”, dating back to the Reformation, that are all confused by our lack of terminology.  He points out that at times evangelicals were almost all post-millennialists (though now they are mostly pre-millennialists), and that either eschatology can be used to justify either Empire or Multitude: “Awareness of social location is central to how eschatology functions, especially in relation to political structures” (198).  In short, our lack of definition of evangelicals hides the fact that our social location has much more to do with whether we support Empire or Multitude than our religious thought.

It would appear, then, that the premise of this book must be inspired by its first essay, in which Jim Wallis attacks Empire’s (i.e. Bush’s) appropriation of Evangelical terminology and identity to support and justify itself.  The essays in this section have shown that this has occurred throughout history, and is not confined to this particular “evangelical movement”, if indeed it is a single movement.  Neither pre- nor post-millennialism itself drives Empire, though both can be used selectively and falsely to do so.  On their own, these eschatologies both give all glory to Christ and either serve as foundational to Multitude (in the social activism of post-millennialism) or at least resist the world-transforming attempts of Empire (in the “resistance to – ” model of the premilliennial Religious Right).  Much more inherent to Empire is racism and classism, which churches of all stripes tend to oppose (perhaps with the exception of the prosperity gospel, which I would argue draws more from Empire than it does from scripture!).  The most informative chapter in this section is the last, which deals with much more than I can summarize here but helps frame the discussion of this entire book.  Well worth a read.

Hopefully tomorrow, I’ll be back with part III: The Future.


Evangelicals and Empire, Part I: The Present

A few years back, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri wrote a book called Empire (2000) in which they argued that empire still exists, but that it has become de-centralized.  That is, due to globalization, empire is no longer centred in and restricted to nation-states.  It is no longer one specific nation that subjugates peoples: empire is free to roam.  But just as empire has globalized, so too has the resistance to empire, which Hardt and Negri call Multitude (the sequel to Empire was Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004)).  The multitude is made up of singularities or individuals who hold certain things in common, with the points of commonality providing the cohesion into a single force that resists domination and subjugation, while the differences between the individuals provide the basis for the radical democracy that they promote and represent.  Globalization serves to enable and empower both Empire and its potential opposition, Multitude, to the same extent.  So while Empire dominates the world as never before, the potential for the Multitude to rise up and form a utopian society is also greater than ever.

In 2008, Bruce Ellis Benson and Peter Goodwin Heltzel brought together a number of contributors to analyze and discuss the connection between Evangelicals and Empire (hence the title).  I’ve been assigned the task of analyzing the arguments put forward in this book in somewhat of a synthesis and summary.  This will prove difficult and interesting because the contributors, though brought together into a single volume, are themselves singularities with irreducible differences.  The book is divided into three sections, Present, Past, and Future, each with 7 chapters.  We will begin with the present.

Each of the writers in this section affirm the existince of Empire, with some pointing out (and Hardt and Negri would agree) that some vestige of the old, centralized version of empire still exists in the foreign policy of America.  But almost all of the writers, in their own way, point out that in key respects Hardt and Negri’s definitions of empire and multitude do not apply to evangelicals, or at least not smoothly.  Jim Wallis, the first contributor and one of the only exceptions to this statement, writes in an article that had been published previously about “Dangerous Religion,” that the use of Christianity by George W. Bush confuses Christianity with American civil religion, citing some awful examples of taking scripture and even hymns out of context and using them to support his policies.  Particularly, Wallis points to the notion that America, by invading Iraq, is going to war against evil:

In Christian theology, it is not nations that rid the world of evil – they are too often caught up in complicated webs of political power, economic interests, cultural clashes, and nationalist dreams.  The confrontation with evil is a role reserved for God, and for the people of God when they faithfully exercise moral conscience.  But God has not given the responsibility for overcoming evil to a nation-state, much less to a superpower with enormous wealth and particular national interests.  To confuse the role of God with that of the American nation…borders on idolatry or blasphemy. (31)

In essence, Christianity has been co-opted by Empire (and the evangelical variety in particular); no wonder evangelicals have gained a reputation for being allied with Empire.  But of course, “the answer to bad theology is not secularism; it is, rather, good theology” (31).  Wallis proposes that “Christians should always live uneasily with empire, which constantly threatens to become idolatrous and substitute secular purposes for God’s” (32).

The fourth chapter picks up on this identification of evangelicalism with America and empire, noting that “for the majority of U.S. evangelicals, Christianity and America are synonymous” (60).  Charles W. Amjad-Ali and Lester Edwin J. Ruiz argue that evangelicalism and American empire both stem from the same bad Puritan theology that has historically been used to justify their own interests.  This religion, particularly as it exists now, “is overtly Abrahamic and reflects a particular interpretation of the Old Testament patriarchs.  It is not based on the incarnation, kenosis, and vulnerability of God in Christ.  For while the faithfulness of Abraham and other patriarchs supposedly produced blessings of longevity, progeny, and land as return, the same was clearly not the case with Jesus” (61).  They point out that evangelicalism is highly individualistic (a thoroughly modernist trait) and nationalistic.  Its eschatology tends to name as Antichrist the current or predicted enemy of America, and its elevation of scripture is unorthodox: “Evanglicals humanize Mary and divinize the text” while Catholics do the opposite (65), but both violate the Trinity by divinizing something or someone other than the Godhead.  But implicit in these political and hermeneutical views of evangelicals is a support for empire.  “Empire becomes proof of its [America’s] righteousness; otherwise it could not have this power” (65).

But are evangelicals all supporters of Empire?  Chapters 2 and 3 each identify evangelicals with multitude.  In “The Contested Church”, Helene Slessarev-Jamir and Bruce Ellis Benson point out that the Church does not fit easily into Multitude because it is fragmented, particularly in our focus on either personal morality (typically associated with conservatives) or social justice (typically associated with liberals).  Positively, they note that this diversity can be a strength, allowing Christianity to fit in many different contexts, but they are careful to note that not all evangelicals are a part of the Multitude: “The multiplicity of evangelism allows it to simultaneously serve as the bulwark of empire as well as the moral foundation of resistance to empire” (37).  Yet they remain positive in the end, looking to God to guide us:

Hardt and Negri envision a multitude as ‘legion’ comprising ‘innumerable elements that remain different, one from another, and yet communicate, collaborate, and act in common.’  They go on to say, ‘Now that really is demonic!’  Yet under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, such collaboration might instead be a new Pentecost in which a holy host of new prophetic voices – speaking in hundreds of tongues – would emerge. (42)

In chapter 3, “Acting in Common”, M. Gail Hamner notes a different way in which evangelicals do not fit the mold of Multitude.  She points out that Hardt and Negri appropriate Foucault’s notion of power and authority as domination, something that does not square properly with the Christian notion of the sovereignty of God.  “…democracy is not a Christian concept and…the struggle for democracy is not a Christian task….Christian love does not employ the tools of empire – or else Christ would have refused the cross and been our earthly sovereign.  To the degree that Christians desire democracy, then, they desire something other than sovereignty” (51-52).  To the contrary, “Multitude acts from a networked, fast-paced, decentralized upsurge of desire…for democracy” (52).  Yet at the same time, “With even more certainty I would submit that the lessons of history do not weigh positively on the side of theocracy” (52).  Hope for evangelicals and multitude can be found, however: “the sovereignty of God avowed by evangelicals might be made immanent, and thus made common to multitude, through the doctrine of imago Dei and a correlating scriptural critique of reified, power-hungry politics” (46).  “One of the challenges to evangelicals concerned about the oppressions of empire, then, is the degree to which they can (practically, doctrinally, and institutionally) act against evangelicals in league with empire” (49).

In chapter 5, “Empire-building or Democracy-at-work?”, Jennifer Butler and Glenn Zuba also draw on the fracture among evangelicals of left and right persuasions, noting the different focus and tactics of their respective NGOs.  “Evangelical involvement in UN projects and conferences suggests that the political activism of family-focused NGO’s tends to have the effect of supporting and benefiting from empire as defined by Hardt and Negri, while humanitarian-focused NGO’s work tends to give its voice to the multitude” (70).  Family-focused NGO’s, of course, include Focus on the Family and the associated Family Research Council, while the humanitarian-focused groups include Jim Wallis’ Sojourners and the International Justice Mission.  They note that conservative religious groups from different denominations, and even from different faiths, have been startled to realize that they have more in common with each other than they do with more “liberal” organizations from their own faith groups; their involvement in the UN and related international conferences has tended to aid in the stalling and disruptive tactics of empires, yet at the same time they are changed by their interaction with each other, giving hope for the future.  In contrast to the empire-serving distractions such groups provide, however, “some of this activism is in fact a perfect example of that messy process we call democracy at work” (78).

The last two chapters in this section were both written by scholars from the group of Radical Orthodoxy, James K. A. Smith and John Millbank.  They both question Hardt and Negri’s solution to the problem of empire in the same way that they question empire itself, by singling out its insufficient, incorrect, and most importantly, unorothodox notion of liberty.  Smith writes

What undergirds both empire and the quasi-imperialism of American foreign policy is a particular concept of freedom.  And this has a direct link to evangelicals: on both a domestic and international level, evangelicals march eagerly under the banner of ‘freedom,’ particularly the freedom of trade and the market (79).

Smith outlines what he refers to as Libertarian Freedom, which defines freedom as the availability of choice and the ability to exercise that choice.  This notion of freedom is quite understandably best exemplified in our free market, which offers us endless choices.  But without a telos, or a transcendent, Good end, these choices lack inherent value, and one choice is as good as another.  Smith points us instead to an Augustinian and Thomist understanding of freedom, which is the freedom to choose the Good, to which we are drawn and enticed (not pushed) by our sovereign God.  When compared to this understanding of freedom, the ultimately valueless choices of libertarian freedom are revealed as inconsistent and false.  Hardt and Negri, unfortunately, reject the transcendent (though they complain that they do not do so to the extent that the collected writers in this volume suggest), and therefore they reject the Freedom to choose the Good and rely on libertarian freedom – the same notion of freedom that undergirds Empire – as the basis for Multitude.  Smith points out that, though they would radicalize this freedom, they are not radical enough; basically, they’re trying to solve the problem from the same level that caused it.

Millbank takes the discussion of liberalism even further in “Liberality vs. Liberalism”.  “What must rather challenge liberalism is a truer ‘liberality’ in the literal sense of a creed of generosity that would suppose, indeed, that societies are more fundamentally bound together by mutual generosity than by contract” (96).  Avoiding the word “empire” almost entirely, Millbank focuses on economy and government to propose that the solution to these problems lies in the Church.  If personal security and choice are the ultimate values, he notes, then anything can be justified to protect those values – even tyranny.  So he suggests that

The Church needs boldly to teach that the only justification for democracy is theological: since the people is potentially the ecclesia, and since nature always anticipates grace, truth lies finally dispersed among the people (although they need the initial guidance of the virtuous) because the Holy Spirit speaks through the voice of all. (95)

The guidance that democracy needs, he suggests, would come from an educated aristocracy; his suggestion for government also includes a Christian notion of monarchy that both represents God’s sovereignty and his service.  But both this aristocracy and monarchy would be a part of his proposed democracy which, as Smith earlier suggested, must be based in a definition of freedom that is rooted in God: “For where there is no public recognition of the primacy of absolute good grounded in something superhuman, then democracy becomes impossible, for it is no longer supposed that one should even search for the intrinsically desirable,” (102) which I assume to be God and the Good.  This baptised democracy must be combined with an economy of gift-giving that is not bound by contract but spurs from generosity; after all, a gift does not settle a debt but always incurs a new debt, so that such an economy affirms a never-ending series of gracious and generous gifts.  These gifts are invested with a sacredness that mere commodities lack, a sacredness that comes with gift-giving; Millbank describes the process as a part of the cosmic Eucharist.  Some of this sounds very similar to what Fr. Raymond J. deSouza spoke about regarding Catholic social teaching about a month ago.  Millbank sums up his proposal:

We need, then, in the Europe and the world of the future, a new conception of the economy as exchange of gifts in the sense of both talents and valued objects that blend material benefit with sacramental significance.  We need also to encourage a new postliberal participatory democracy that is enabled by the aristocracy of an education that seeks after the common good and absolute transcendental truths.  Finally, we need to see that it is equally enabled by a monarchic principle that permits a unified power at the limit to intervene in the name of noncodifiable equity. (102-3)

It would appear that, at least in the present, Evangelicals (at least in the US) are universally acknowledged as being allied with or participating in Empire, whether through the quasi-imperialism of American foreign policy or through the decentralized, global Empire of Hardt and Negri, embodied in liberal capitalism.  But can evangelicals be awakened to their complicity in this domination system?  Hardt and Negri paint all authority as inherently dominating, yet Christians recognize God’s sovereignty as a liberating force that allows us to choose the Good.  I used the term “domination system” deliberately, referring to Walter Wink’s terminology for the combined systemic evil of the powers and principalities that subjugate and dominate people, particularly (or at least most obviously) in the ‘developing world’.  I think that Wink’s “domination system” and Hard and Negri’s “Empire” are one and the same, or at least overlap greatly.  The implications of this connection, particularly given the extent to which evangelicals are implicated in Empire in this book, are awful to consider.

In the theological, Abrahamic, prosperity-gospel justification for Empire, it becomes clear that Evangelicals in North America are among the prime beneficiaries of this domination system; not only do they justify it, but they baptise it and claim it as a sign of God’s approval of them.  If Empire really is the domination system of Walter Wink, which has Satan as its head, then this baptising of Empire is idolatry of the highest order.  If God’s goal for the human race is humanising us all, then our support of this system makes us God’s enemies.  On one hand, we cannot avoid participating in it; it struck me last night that global capitalism and the horrors it perpetuates is the mark of the beast, required to buy or sell.  But on the other hand, we need not vocally support such a system.  Why set ourselves up as the enemies of God?  It is no wonder that Smith’s essay was called “The Gospel of Freedom, or Another Gospel?” referring to Paul’s note that some will come preaching other gospels.

But how do we tell a segment of the Church that they have been hoodwinked by a false gospel?  This segment of the Church is noted for its rabid rejection of anything “liberal”, and their ability to characterize anything that is concerned with social justice (and thus might challenge their gospel of hegemony) as “liberal”.  In affect, to disagree with them renders our opinion invalid.  What to do?

Instrumentality and Idolatry

It struck me as I was reading about powers and principalities today that the opposite of idolatry is instrumentality.  When we create something, it is almost always as an instrument – it has a purpose, and it is not an end in itself.  With the exception of art and having babies, this is the case for human creation.  But when an instrument loses its instrumentality, when it takes on a meaning or purpose beyond its created function, and most especially when it becomes an end in itself, it is idolatry.

Take money (or mammon) for example: it has no inherent value; its value is derived from what it represents, which is the ability to purchase actual products that do have inherent value.  Jesus warned against trying to serve both God and mammon (money), noting that it’s impossible.  But when we begin to seek money for its own sake, that’s precisely what we do: money stops serving us, and we begin serving money.  The created (money) demands the service of the creator (human beings, and ultimately, God), in an inversion of the dominion over created things that God gave us in Genesis.  This is why idolatry is so abominable to God: it reverses the created order entirely.

The same thing happens with institutions.  Whether they were created by God, or are created by human beings, or some combination of the two, the point is that they were created, and they were created to serve the world by ordering and structuring human society.  We all recognize that politicians spend more time trying to get re-elected than they do actually governing, but we fail to see this as idolatry.  It is.  The political system is more concerned with self-preservation than it is with performing its actual function, which is why social progress takes so long and why citizens are almost always unhappy with their government.  The politicians no longer use the political system for the sake of the people; now they use the people for the sake of the system.  Idolatry.

As you can see, not only does the instrument (the means) become the purpose (the end), but the true end (humanity) becomes the means.  We are instrumentalised by our own instruments.  So is God.  The religious sense of idolatry, that of bowing down to created things, is the most simple and concrete sense.  It’s no wonder that the prophets attacked religious idolatry; it served as a symbol of every other type of idolatry in Israel’s society.
I think it’s all becoming clearer 🙂