Calling Out Empire

The prophetic task begins by calling out “the principalities and powers.”  One of the tasks of Christian social holiness is to identify and expose evil. It must always be carried out in light of an exhortation to righteousness; otherwise, prophetic ministry is only deconstructive.  Un-building without re-building is not the way of God.  [1] 

The word ‘redemption’ is a focal sign of that fact.  The “old order” must pass away, but it does so through the coming of the “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  The trajectory of prophetic ministry is always set by the starting point of original righteousness (Genesis 1 and 2) and by the vision (telos) of the peacable kingdom (shalom). 

The calling-out phase initiates the journey from darkness to light, but it is inevitably controversial and challenging.  Walter Brueggemann has been emphasizing this in his more-recent writings (e.g. ‘God, Neighbor, Empire: The Excess of Divine Fidelity and the Command of the Common Good’), but he has also noted it in his earlier writings as well (e.g. ‘The Prophetic Imagination’).  He uses the word ’empire’ to name the personal and corporate evil infecting our souls. [2]

We are living once again in a generation when “naming the demons” is a necessary precursor to exorcizing them. If you follow my writing, you have read previous posts in which I have tried to do that as clearly and responsibly as I can.  This post is another attempt.

President Trump’s address at the ultra-conservative  Values Voters Summit this past Friday was a moment which cannot be ignored.  Steve Bannon’s appearance there must also be included in this observation.  While it would be easy to expose the Summit for the anti-Christ sham that it is, I am writing this post for a different reason. [3]

My aim is to add my voice to those who are doing all they can to say that the time has passed for excusing the words and actions of the current administration (and its allies inside and outside the government) as expressions born of inexperience, ignorance, or ineptness–with whatever amount of narcissism you want to add to that assessment.  While these things may be in the mix, they are not the menu.

The menu is a strategic effort engineered by intelligent and intentional people–in the society, the government, and the church to enthrone white-supremacy/nationalism (predominantly white-male power) and to try to convince us that God is for it–a modern-day manifestation of ’empire’ as Brueggemann defines it.

Compared to others in this movement, Donald Trump may be a minor-leaguer, but his attitudes and actions (even before he became president) contribute to the white-nationalist agenda that is seeking to dominate our common life.  To keep defaulting to explanations which tilt the conversation toward dumbness, or even farther toward pathology, overlook the fact that the insanity we are seeing is born of cold, calculated, and ruthless design.  Some of nationalism’s most prominent spokespersons couch their effort in “war” language.

Newsweek’s willingness to name Donald Trump as the most dangerous man in the world (October 6th issue) is no diatribe, but rather an assessment made by behavioral experts who are willing to identify themselves in print and stand by their evaluations.  When responsible people sound an alarm, it is irresponsible for us to ignore it. 

The connection of dots is further corroborated by in-depth studies of nationalistic ideologies and movements, showing how they come into being and what philosophical, theological, and ethical pillars they exist and operate on (e.g.  Anatol Lieven’s ‘America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism,’ second edition, 2012).  Other nationalist groups in other parts of the world are espousing similar principles and engaging in comparable practices.

It is no longer possible (if it ever was) to go through the days of our lives attributing what we are seeing to accident or arrogance. We are witnessing “organized chaos,” and the many manifestations of it by determined people to enthrone egotism and ethnocentrism–the two major expressions of sin, original and ongoing, the main ingredients that give rise to ’empire’ in state or church.  A carefully crafted plan is playing out right before our eyes.  Comments over the weekend by Steve Bannon verify this, and show that the nationalists are no longer hesitant to say so.

Maya Angelou’s words ring true, “When people tell you who they are, believe them.”  The nationalists are themselves telling us who they are.  And they are engaged in a process to establish ’empire.’  This is why I find Brueggemann to be a prophet himself and a needed guide in knowing how to resist the nationalist agenda.

In making this claim, I must be clear to state that the prophetic call to righteousness (whether mine or those made by others) is not an attempt to justify President Obama’s administration, or any other one, for that matter.  This is the straw-man, knee-jerk reaction made by those who would have you believe that people like me are little other than “sore losers.”  Let me be clear–I am not writing this because certain candidates were not elected (or because certain ones have been elected the past few weeks), nor am I advocating an idealized return to any alleged “good old days.”

I am not looking to either major political party (or the growing number of sub-sets within them) for the solution to the downward spiral we are witnessing.  In fact, as Brueggemann notes, the socio-political-religious ’empire’ is itself the problem, and it resists reformation at every turn.  Those in power in church or state intend to remain in power.

My concerns rest on the conviction that many of our elected leaders and influential ideologues are taking us away from righteousness, not toward it–no matter how much they use the Bible and “God talk” to try to justify what they are saying and doing.   Sadly, visible and vocal Christian leaders, churches, colleges, universities, seminaries, and parachurch associations are endorsing ’empire’  through various attitudes and actions that demean and discriminate–which, Brueggemann says, is always the case.  ‘Empire’ always wraps itself  in a religious-liturgical garment, masquerading as light.

But rallies, rhetoric,  and showmanship cannot hide the fact that Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16 CEB).  We cannot survive on the waxed fruit the ‘imperialists’ are handing out.  They are doing harm, particularly to the weak, vulnerable, and marginalized.  And washing their waxed fruit down with the snake oil they are peddling will only hasten our demise.

[1]  One of Brueggemann’s latest book is focused on the reconstructive nature of the prophetic task: ‘Restoring the Foundations: Social Relationships in Ancient Scripture and Contemporary Culture.’

[2] Brueggemann’s term ’empire’ is what the Bible describes as “the principalities and powers” and “the kingdoms of this world.”  In his book, ‘God, Neighbor, Empire…’ cited above, he provides the four major characteristics of ’empire’ using examples from the Old Testament, but showing how imperialism has continuef right up to the present– (1) wealth is extracted from the vulnerable and put in the hands of the powerful, (2) everyone and everything is a commodity that can be bought and sold, traded, possessed,  consumed, and discarded, (3) violence is practiced on whatever scale is needed to insure the success and survival of the powerful, and (4) imperialists use religious language and liturgy to legitimize their actions, courting religious leaders for their endorsement.

[3]  On its website The Southern Poverty Law Center has provided an extensive look at the Forum and speaker’s at last week’s conference.  It is a chilling parade of bigotry and discrimination.

About jstevenharper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 31 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church
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