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.

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