catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 3 :: 2009.01.30 — 2009.02.13


Reconsidering empire

When I read catapult‘s recent issue on empire, my response was admittedly one of ambivalence. Ambivalence, because, on the one hand, there is no doubt that evil works its way into political, economic and social systems so as to deform what would otherwise be ordinary human activities, but also because, on the other, these activities themselves have a legitimate place in God’s world. Given that all of his creation is fallen into sin, it is to be expected that the latter should manifest itself in systemic ways. We western Christians are indeed implicated, seemingly inextricably, in patterns of disobedience and oppression.

Nevertheless, this is not the whole story. There is an old Latin saying, Abusus non tollit usum, which, roughly translated, means: The abuse of something does not rule out its legitimate use. This is, in fact, a biblical insight rooted in a solid understanding that, while sin is as comprehensive as creation itself, the latter remains God’s creation and thus intrinsically good. Even when clouds obscure the sun on a gloomy day, we can still, by God’s grace, see its light, which is nearly always brighter than the darkening power of the clouds. This is due to what Reformed Christians call God’s common grace or general revelation, and what Roman Catholics and others label the natural law.

There is no doubt that all of us are caught up in the idolatries of our day, and there may be something to labelling the systemic impact of these as empire. Yet the use of this label-which almost always has negative connotations-is not without difficulties, raising some issues that need to be addressed and further clarified:

  1. Like Sarah Bailey, I too frequent the local thrift stores, where I’ve found some wonderful bargains over the decades. (I’m always on the lookout for bowties!) I generally avoid the indoor malls and delay the necessary shopping trip until my clothing is threadbare. Yet I don’t see this as subversive as much as stewardly, rooted in an aversion to seeing good things go to waste. Are my purchasing habits a sign of the coming kingdom? I would like to think so, yet I also recognize the danger of personal pride that can so often accompany these sorts of countercultural acts. Can we live obediently without becoming prey to self-righteousness? Speaking for myself, I’m afraid I’d have to say no, not entirely.
  2. There is no doubt that greed fuels our economic system. Though I am reluctant to dismiss the legitimacy of advertising as a profession (see again that Latin adage above), so much of it focuses on stimulating appetites we didn’t even know we had. The current global economic crisis is due, not only to Wall Street greed, but also to Main Street greed. This is something candidates for public office will not tell us for fear of alienating potential voters. Nevertheless, I cannot help but wonder whether as Christians we are called less to subvert the current system than to try to redirect it towards economic obedience. Perhaps this is a quibble over terms, but I don’t think so. The prophet Jeremiah commanded the people of God to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7, RSV). What are the implications of this command for our own participation in institutions that are in large measure in the grip of idolatry? This needs further reflection.
  3. With Brian Walsh I agree that there is a tendency in many Christian circles to read Romans 13 out of context. Nevertheless, my question to him is whether he sees in this passage an affirmation of a normative task for the state, i.e., the body politic led by government and vested with the coercive power of the sword. Certainly real-life governments perform oppressive acts, and Paul could hardly wish his readers to be ignorant of this tragic reality. Yet it seems evident in this passage that Paul is placing government in a larger normative framework, where it is granted legitimate authority as “servant of God” to “execute his wrath on wrongdoers,” or, more basically, to do public justice. In this sense, is not fear a good thing insofar as it deters would-be criminals and thereby furthers the maintenance of justice?
  4. If there is a legitimate place for the state in God’s world as a community of citizens and government led by the norm of justice, how does empire differ from it? Are we Christians really called to form an alternative “body politic” to the state in this normative sense? Or should we, as members of the body of Christ, perhaps be manifesting his redeeming power within the state, of which we are after all citizens, and indeed within every area of life?
  5. Finally, as I hinted above, there is a certain danger in targeting empire as something “out there” of which we should be wary. To be sure, we ought not to underestimate the power of sin on political and economic systems. Yet neither should we assume that such systems are themselves the source of evil in the world. Efforts at building and subverting empires are both alike occasions for sin. Separating ourselves from sinful systems, if that were even possible, cannot by itself remove us from sin’s power, which affects all of us in the depths of our hearts, whether we shop at the Gap or Value Village, buy our groceries at Loblaws or grow our own produce in the back garden. Might Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) have some relevance here?

By all means, we should be wary of consumerism, liberalism, nationalism and the various idolatrous ideologies of our present age. But the use of the term empire risks covering too much and dispensing with too much-not only with misdirected, disobedient ways of life, but with concrete structures of creation that, in principle, fall under both judgement and redemption in Jesus Christ.

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