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Finding an Answer

by Berry Friesen (September 4, 2017)

The title of our book—If Not Empire, What?—poses the question clearly enough. But does the book provide an answer?

Living as we do within the belly of the beast, John K. Stoner and I are unlikely candidates to come up with an alternative to empire.  After all, part of what an empire does is consume and digest (break down) anything that hints of an alternative.  Along with the rest of you living in America, John and I experience this co-opting process constantly in our work, daily routines and the myriad media-driven debates that fill our thoughts and conversations.

So no, John and I did not come up with “an answer” to the question.

Those who live far from the center of the empire—geographically or spiritually—are better situated to imagine an alternative.

Thus, so-called rogue nations such as Cuba, Iran and North Korea*  give us worldviews and lifeways that are distinctive and surprising, in part because the empire has banished those nations to the margins, far from the usual discourse and exchange of “benefits.” The same could be said about the separatist Amish. These distant people and places can be sources of “an answer.”

For those already convinced the world would collapse without an empire to keep the lid on, the “answer” needs to be similar to what we have now, only better. You know, less violence, a more equitable distribution of goods and services and higher quality emperors, but still fully capable of holding back chaos and keeping the world working in coordinated fashion.

Of course, John and I have not described an alternative of that sort. Following as we do the core thread of the biblical texts, we reject the premise of the imperial worldview—that without a dominating power ruling the world through overwhelming violence, it will collapse into chaos and decline.  No, we haven’t even tried to offer that kind of “answer.”

The story of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9)—with its rejection of centralization and uniformity—is a cornerstone of our stance.  We contend that if we repent of our desire to dominate and yield to the compassion and just order of the god who made us (YHWH), we will experience a capacity to create, nurture and produce life-sustaining abundance. That is, out of the apparent chaos of thousands of uncoordinated responses, human creativity and cooperation will emerge to make a way.

But more to the point of this post, by pointing to the biblical record, our book suggests where to find “an answer” to the question of empire.  It’s the Bible with its prophetic texts, the teachings of Jesus and two very helpful historical alternatives—post-exilic Judaism and the Christian communities of the first century.  Both pursued a vision of shalom (community, security, reconciliation) rooted in a combination of religious tradition, present-day deliverance and commitment to YHWH.

So yes, notwithstanding the long history of compromise, collaboration and corruption between empire and Jewish and Christian religious institutions, our book makes the claim that we can find “an answer” to empire in the Jewish and Christian scriptures.

I realize how little sense this makes in the West, where religion at its best is a free therapist and at its worst is the source of bigotry and ignorance.

Indeed, many here in the West seem not to understand what traditional religion does: elevate ancient wisdom in order to create and nurture a life free from the deceit and captivity imposed by today’s consensus.  Frederick Turner captured this blindness in his essay, “The Freedoms of the Past: On the Advantage of Looking Backward:”

“Our cultural myth is one of liberation, of the present breaking the shackles of the past. But what if it is the past that breaks the shackles of the present?”

It’s important to catch this point:  within the West today, few look to the religions of the past to offer them a different way for the world to work today.  It’s not even a passing thought. Instead, most insist that for religion to be worthwhile, it must add value to a life and worldview already fully formed by the empire.

Unsurprisingly, this isn’t very successful. Unless it is odd, unless it is in honest tension with the empire, religion becomes pretty weak tea (e.g., god loves me, god loves you, let’s all love one another).  More and more people are concluding they don’t need it; pop music and walks in the park will do just as well.

So where do we go from here?

There’s not much that can be done to affect the playing out of the empire’s inexorable agenda. Nor is there much to be done in the short-term to convince an increasingly secular culture that ancient texts are potential sources of “answers” to modern problems of economics, social equality, governance and peacemaking.

What we can do as people of faith is reverse the narrowing of vision within our communities of faith. Bring back to active memory, in other words, that the religious traditions that formed us have this dynamic potential to break our bondage to today’s dogmas and life-threatening constrictions.

As an example of this narrowing of religious vision, consider the nationwide church in which I hold membership, Mennonite Church USA.  Traditionally, Mennonites have articulated an alternative to empire via a refusal to participate in the military; a commitment to mutual aid and service to the needy; and the practices of community accountability and servant leadership. Yet in recent years, this church has been declining rapidly due to controversies related to personal liberation and same-sex marriage. Just around the corner is further controversy related to “the gender revolution.” Traditionalists and progressives continue to go their separate ways over these matters, leaving a weakened, discouraged and less resilient church.

Aspects of these controversies affect the shalom of the community, are important and are not easily resolved. Yet other aspects are on the church’s agenda mainly because they're part of the empire's agenda. We need the skill—typically found most frequently among traditionalists—to tell the difference. And we need to hold these difficult controversies within a broader perspective that recalls our mandate to offer the world an alternative to empire.

Because without alternatives the world is lost. Do we really imagine the US-led empire has any answers?
*  For perspective on the escalating tensions between the US and North Korea, see “North Korea Tests a New Nuke—Continues to Press for Negotiations,”  “What the Media Isn't Telling You about North Korea's Missile Tests” and “How History Explains the Korean Crisis.”

1 comment:

  1. The answer is there, as long as the touchstone for interpretation is Jesus, and the teacher the indwelling of the Holy Spirit He promised to those who repent of their sins and are transformed by God's Spirit. Only in that way do we become aware there is a way out of what enslaves us personally, and are enabled to do so. Empires are the structures of sin erected by those enslaved to their appetites, the ones Jesus rejected when his answer was that we are not to live by bread alone - the material promises of all empire, but particularly the late stage instance we live under.