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?


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