For a little over a decade now, “empire criticism”—an interpretive method that aims to uncover the anti-imperial message in various biblical texts—has been on the ascent, especially among New Testament scholars. Friesen and Stoner’s book makes a real contribution to this approach, not only by presenting a popular account of empire criticism—one that will be especially valuable for Anabaptists—but also by trying to show that this anti-imperial message is continuous with a tradition that runs from the Old Testament through to the early church and is embodied especially in Christ.
The key word in their book is empire: “a system of coordinated control that enriches itself through overwhelming socio-economic and military power at the global level” and “portrays itself as the primary source of security and peace in the world” (7). The authors, for their part, view empire as the primary threat to life and peace on earth, and they attempt to show how valuable the Bible can be as a source of imaginative and political resistance to this global threat.
But hasn’t the Bible often been a tool of oppressors? Friesen and Stoner argue that the history of the Hebrews is actually a history of two competing visions of God, one allied with the political and sacral centers of imperial power, the other the friend of the dispossessed and marginalized. Moreover, throughout the book, the authors provide an accessible account of the ancient contexts and alternative worldviews that so often prove crucial to a robust interpretation of such biblical stories. By directing our attention to these historical and imaginative contexts, Friesen and Stoner not only push the willing reader past simplistic Sunday School interpretations but also lead us to deeper, richer, and more demanding readings of long-familiar texts.
For example, they reveal the original political meanings of words such as “gospel,” “salvation,” and “ekklesia” (church). Their interpretation of Revelation is especially beautiful and instructive. The stories, as they tell them, offer fresh insight into the faith of Jesus and the character of YHWH’s kingdom, correcting distortions and cultural complicity that have too often embedded themselves in Christians’ belief systems.
There are many who will profit from this book. It will be edifying to Anabaptists, especially to many of us who already have an anti-imperial worldview and who want to make sense of the Old and New Testaments within our established worldviews. I imagine that the book will also be of interest to radically minded non-Christians who seek an alternative to empire and who will find surprising and fascinating information about the relevance of biblical history to their project.
On the other hand, the book may be unconvincing to Christians of other traditions and those unfamiliar with the empire-criticism approach to the Bible. Friesen and Stoner are not biblical scholars in their own right, nor do they often appeal to the work of ecumenical biblical scholars; rather, they rely almost entirely on a single work by Wes Howard-Brook for their textual interpretation. As Friesen and Stoner know well, anyone can justify their doctrine with Scripture, so even in a popular work one desires more scholarly references to establish the credibility of various readings. On more than a couple of occasions, the authors claim to understand texts that have puzzled Christians and scholars for centuries—the messages are anti-imperial, of course! They may well be right, but without further reference to reliable sources, a skeptic could very easily dismiss their entire project.
One might also worry that the book relies too heavily on a binary categorization of texts as either pro-empire or anti-empire. Anti-empire stories are praised, while pro-empire stories are vilified as coming from places of imperial power; indeed, Friesen and Stoner often to seem to run the Bible through a kind of imperially poisoned-well hermeneutic—any text written by those close to the levers of the empire’s power necessarily serves the interests of empire.
Members of the empire are always and unforgivably suspect. Empire ruins and poisons everything; thus, those in league with the empire cannot have authentic relationships with God. Any Old Testament book or story that holds a “David-and-Solomon” worldview (or honors the kings in any way) or that emphasizes temple worship is pro-empire and dismissed. Because this anti-imperial lens is laid upon the Scriptures, one is led to ignore or even deny the other ways God may speak to us through the Word, even through those ghastly pro-empire voices (Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, First Isaiah, the David tradition, etc.). The sheer wrongness of empire is so absolute that the reader is led to imagine that empire may be the only real evil about which we ought ever to speak.
But those of us with a long experience of the redeeming but also flawed reality of our churches might wonder: is it really the case that small, nonviolent, forgiving, and suffering communities are guaranteed to be righteous? Is centralized power the only world-destructive malice with which we have to contend?
These questions lead to a final concern: Friesen and Stoner’s exhaustive focus on the political leaves one to wonder, where is God? To their credit, the authors do believe that life is more than political community: life involves love and loss and the entire panoply of human relationships (201). Nevertheless, there are only a handful of references to life also being about a living relationship with God (YHWH). Instead, Christianity seems to be first and foremost a political revolution. The work and message of Jesus is simply the formation of an alternative community, a new social system, one founded on justice, compassion, forgiveness, and nonviolent resistance rather than domination, vengeance, and bloodshed (see 248–49, 271).
Indeed, these are all essential to the kingdom of God, but the presence of God itself is strangely elided by Friesen and Stoner’s account. Throughout the vast majority of the book, prayer is not mentioned as an important facet of this community—as if the strength to stand against empire and the wisdom for justice, compassion, and nonviolence could be imagined apart from calling on God’s Spirit in, with, and for us. For readers who believe—and believe it is extremely important—that God comes near to us, lives in us, and transforms our spirits with, yes, a kind of supernatural love, the vision of community presented by Friesen and Stoner may appear too much like a merely political vision of utopia.
My concerns notwithstanding, If Not Empire, What? is a valuable and instructive book, especially for those of us eager to work for the kingdom of God and to confront the empire. Throughout their book, Friesen and Stoner reiterate the radical, anti-imperial voice that the body of Christ needs to hear again and again if it is to make manifest the kingdom of God, here and now. It is a hard message but one we need to hear until all of our lives—political as well as spiritual—are fully conformed to the life of Christ.
Does the Bible support or critique the concept of empire? * Berry Friesen and John K. Stoner’s biblical survey helps untangle this question and provides a biblical alternative to empire. The authors show that although the Bible holds both pro- and anti-empire messages, its overall message is one that critiques empire and lays out the foundation for a new kind of society. This message is pertinent because North American Christians tend to privilege the pro-empire texts since those texts justify their complicity with empire. Tackling every book of the Bible, the authors address such topics as power, justice, and salvation. They illustrate how YHWH worked to create an alternative, nonviolent culture that sought justice and the kingdom of God, a culture that continues today.
The critique of empire shows up everywhere in the Bible. In Genesis the patriarchs share Canaan with their neighbors. In Exodus, YHWH works in history, saving a mixed ethnic group of slaves from the oppression of Pharaoh. The monarchy is decried in many of the prophetic oracles, and the theocratic, jubilee vision of the wilderness even shows up in spots throughout the otherwise pro-monarchy books of 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles. The exile to Babylon raises the question again, when the Israelite empire itself collapses, along with the unconditional Davidic covenant. The crisis turns out to be a gift, a chance to make a radical break from the worship of empire, but the exiles receive the gift only in part. Ezra trades the security of the monarchy for the security of ritual and ethnic purity, and empire simply changes its outward form.
Enter Jesus, born into the violent reality of the Roman Empire. Through his teachings, life, miracles, and crucifixion, he demonstrates another way to live—a way of nonviolent resistance, a sharp critique of unjust religious systems, a radical inclusion of Gentiles and “sinners,” and a refusal to use the tools of empire. This refusal is shown most clearly in the wilderness temptations narrative, which the authors unfortunately gloss over. The critique continues with the early church’s story, where Peter and John tell their captors, “We must obey God rather than human authority” (Acts 5:29). The Jerusalem Council’s decision to fully include Gentile believers without circumcision is another bold critique of empire-fed exclusivity. The few restrictions given the Gentile believers all function as ways to discourage participation in imperial festivals.
Finally, both Paul and Revelation round out the resounding critique of empire. Paul gets into trouble with the governing authorities everywhere he goes, which is normative for the Jesus follower (266). His understanding of the “New Creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) is not about individuals becoming new spiritually through a relationship with Jesus but the miraculous new reality of Jews and Gentiles being one egalitarian body, worshipping together. The crucified Messiah, foolishness to the world, is actually a profound critique of the Roman Empire and all human pretenses at wisdom. Revelation is an apocalyptic vision that seeks to encourage Christians suffering under the Beast, none other than the Roman Empire. The authors hesitate over what appears to be YHWH’s fairly direct destruction of evildoers in Revelation, but the text here resembles much of the rest of the biblical narrative, where evil self-destructs. The Beast devours the harlot, both symbolizing evil in Revelation 17:15-18. So too the empire.
Yet the biblical narrative also contains elements that support empire, or at least portray it in a positive light. Stoner and Friesen set the contrasts up nicely, reminding us of the importance of the historical context of the writers. So according to Genesis, YHWH’s people were to share the land with their Canaanite neighbors, but by the time of Joshua, those same neighbors were to be “utterly destroyed.” Abram’s call to bless all the families on earth contrasts with Ezra’s religious purge of all non-Jewish spouses on his return from Babylon. The Persian king Cyrus is seen as a “messiah,” in sharp contrast to Exodus’ view of Pharaoh. David and Solomon glory in their military victories, while Jesus shows YHWH’s glory in his nonviolent march to the cross. Paul tells the Philippians that their citizenship is in heaven and the author of I Timothy exhorts the believers to pray for the king, and uses the teachings of Jesus as a reason to acquiesce to an unjust status quo (315).
Since the Bible speaks with different voices concerning empire, we must choose which voices have more authority over how we understand our own discipleship. Friesen and Stoner clearly call us to favor the biblical texts that critique the empire, following the teachings and example of Jesus. This hermeneutical practice is not as simple as choosing the Second Testament over the First, as many Anabaptists have been taught to do. Some parts of the Second Testament, the Pastoral Epistles in particular, would guide us to go-along-to-get-along (317). But with every text, we ask questions about the perspective of the writers, how power is defined, and who benefits—questions we must ask today when we hear differing interpretations on current events.
Friesen and Stoner identify two primary audiences for their book: millennials and Christians who struggle to make sense of the Bible’s moral offenses and intellectual contradictions. Members of the millennial generation, in particular, have often chosen to not assume “biblical faith nor attempted to persuade readers to embrace such a faith.” I appreciate the intentional way the authors are seeking to reach these audiences. Yet I also grieve the diminishment of all things miraculous or divine in If Not Empire, What? because I believe it is that aspect of biblical faith that gives us the strength, wisdom, and courage to live into this alternative, nonviolent community. How can we find the love and energy needed not only to fight the empire but to help YHWH redeem it?
There is a third audience I would love to see reading this book: U.S. evangelicals. But the book’s suspicion toward Jesus’ divinity, miracles, and the resurrection and a portrayal of salvation as primarily fighting corporate oppression will very likely push evangelicals to stop reading before they get to the compelling argument for a biblical alternative to empire. Perhaps the authors fear that if Jesus followers put too much emphasis on things like miracles or the second coming, then we will sit on our hands, ignore injustice, accept an individual and spiritualized salvation, and fashion Jesus into a convenient version of ourselves.
At times it seems as if the authors fear that the very indulgence of the supernatural will deflate the critique of empire. I share that fear, to some degree. But we can also become off-balance in the opposite direction, trying to fight justice and love our enemies simply on our own strength and grim determination. Empire can’t be defeated just by a good example, even one as good as Jesus’. Christians don’t have to agree completely on which miracles were historical or how exactly Jesus is divine to agree on our calling to resist empire, and to recognize that such resistance is an impossible task without supernatural help from YHWH.
If Not Empire, What? is a valuable addition to biblical scholarship and the church, giving us not only a fresh survey of the canon, but also a solution for the apparent disunity of the biblical narrative concerning the role of empire. It provides a standard for discerning which texts should be given more authority for our ethics, the standard of Exodus, the standard of Jesus.
* Empire is “a system of coordinated control that enriches itself through overwhelming socio-economic and military power at the global level.”
--Anthony Bartlett, author of Virtually Christian: How Christ Changes Human Meaning and Makes Creation New (published January 12, 2015 at amazon.com).
A magical view of the bible has played a major role in Christian understanding, probably from very early on. Calling Scripture "sacred" can make a direct reading off-limits to all but a priestly class. But the comparatively recent evangelical doctrine of "inerrancy" shifts the magic the other way. It places an intolerable burden on words and sentences themselves. They are to be read somehow with transparent understanding, believing no interpretive lens is being employed unless the one the text grafts directly into the eyes of the righteous reader!
If Not Empire, What? is an enormously refreshing alternative. The authors present a robust, impassioned argument that biblical scripture is to be understood from the get-go as "resistance to empire," where empire means a self-enriching system working through economic and military power at a global level. This is an up-front and declared interpretive principle, and one borne out in multiple readings taking us through the whole Christian biblical canon from Genesis to Revelation. But underlying this principle is one even more exciting. It is the fact of the bible's writing as a long historical self-criticism and self-deconstruction in which the compositional moment and situation are as important as the text itself. In this connection the sixth-century experience of exile played an absolutely pivotal creative role in the bible's final meaning.
Perhaps the great example is Genesis: placed strategically at the beginning of the whole book, it was written by "Israelites living in Babylon under Persian rule." These people told stories that "portrayed their ancestors as flawed and YHWH as a god who subverts conventional notions about how the world works." As preface to the bible it is meant to condition everything after it and the arc of its own storyline flies like a bird from violence to forgiveness.
The logic in the bible then leads unfailingly to the nonviolent cross and its simultaneous revelation of core human violence and the possibility of love. The very fact of this long-arc and impossible logic suggests a transcendent guiding force. For all those seeking to read the bible from the point of view of its compositional--and therefore anthropological--story, rather than a magical textual surface, If Not Empire, What? is an invaluable resource. The bible, rather than being fetishized as a print-out of God's arbitrary and violent ego-mania, becomes an algorithm of human transformation--one that is itself the true revelation of a G-d of love.
Necessarily with a survey of something as big as the whole bible there are bound to be differences on detail and emphasis. One thing I would have liked would have been a greater stress on resurrection--as itself a definitive victory over empire and its most feared instrument, death. However, the method which Stoner and Friesen use just of itself leads to that kind of reflection. To understand the bible as a long struggle against violence, overturning its final power in human life, is itself a hermeneutic of resurrection. Written in sturdy straightforward layman's terms, I cannot recommend this book too highly.
The authors of this book are friends of mine. I have long admired their commitment to the Christian task of peacemaking and vigorous activism for social justice. In this volume they invite us “to read the Bible the way it was written—as a collection of arguments about life, love and power.”
“Empire” is a concept one finds increasingly in contemporary political analysis and ethical thinking. The contrast between those who promote imperial ways of thinking and those who emphasize peace, love and reconciliation permeates what Friesen and Stoner label the First and Second Testaments. The contrast is similar to the way peace-minded churches emphasize the separation of church and state or hold to a two-kingdom means of understanding the Christian stance in the world.
In this study of politics and Scripture, “empire” is defined as a system of coordinated control that “exalts itself, establishes its own secret purposes, resists accountability to anyone or anything, thrives through deception and violence, co-opts or suppresses all alternatives and delivers us into the hands of death.”
Friesen and Stoner are not anarchists. They “understand government to be a helpful structure to serve limited purposes within the requirements of justice and public accountability.” They trace political interaction and insight from Genesis to Revelation. They focus on how each biblical personality, situation and analysis “speaks to the political dimensions of life: the framing of public issues, how collective action is organized, what purposes and tactics are judged to be legitimate and how power is exercised.”
The authors cite every book of the Bible, sometimes for only one paragraph, other times for many pages. Friesen and Stoner adopt a chronological approach rather than follow the sequence used in the two testaments. The close reading means both context and interaction with other themes are severely limited. This is an intense study that surely will strain some readers. Indeed, the intensity is so great that striving to read from cover to cover is not an easy task.
Nonetheless, this is a significant book. By concentrating on the politics of the Bible, the reader soon realizes that this is no peripheral topic. Indeed, each critical moment in the biblical story has a political context and political message. For example, Jesus was born during an imperial census, was protected by Egyptian authorities, lived his life in the midst of religious, imperial and local political tensions and died at the command of these three authorities .
Readers will be challenged by the underlying claim that “there is a way of life within our grasp that leads to social justice, peace and prosperity.” I wish the authors would have spelled out the implications of this claim.
This inductive study—unraveling the biblical texts—also illustrates some limitations. Bible texts frequently borrow from other parts of Scripture, which also provide helpful interpretation. The Bible was written in a historical context. Some reference to ancient history and comparative political theories would strengthen the analysis. Indeed, the history of biblical interpretation could be helpful in identifying differences in language usage and in how words and concepts have been defined then and now.
In the concluding chapter, the authors say the Book of Revelation’s “grim scenes . . . are all about the consequences of the way the empire runs the world.” Yet the writer of Revelation envisions “the kingdom of this world becoming the kingdom of our God and his Messiah.” The authors might have more strongly suggested the role of the faithful in the realization of this hoped for future.
My critique of this book has little to do with its contents. I wish the authors would have said more about why they addressed this topic at this particular time and place and provided a more comprehensive narrative.
This book is available free as a PDF document at bible-and-empire.net, which also features a blog by the authors.
--Tim Runtz, Associate Editor, Geez Magazine (published February 4, 2015 at geezmagazine.org).
Praise from authors & readers
(published in the front-piece to paperback edition)
--Ted Grimsrud, Professor of Theology and Peace Studies, Eastern Mennonite University
"Berry Friesen and John Stoner's book is a very helpful tool for beginners to start the process of engaging the real struggles that take place in the Bible between the people of God and "empire." In our world where so many insist on taking the Bible literally while paying little attention to the worlds that generated these texts, such an introduction is vitally necessary. Their enthusiasm is infectious! I hope it will inspire a new generation to take up the joyous discipline of authentic entry into the narratives that make up our biblical inheritance."
--Wes Howard-Brook, author,"Come Out, My People!": God's Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond; instructor of Theology and Religious Studies, Seattle University.
“This is a highly disciplined and tenaciously focused reading of the Bible from the singular perspective of God’s Empire alongside other empires. Written in a coherent and popular style, it refreshes the tired eyes of the near-sighted and revitalizes the fading perspective of the far-sighted. It introduces new insights into the Christian’s daily vocation of reconciliation and faithfulness. It is an antidote alike to simplistic harmonization of Biblical material, de-construction of Scripture into unconnected tidbits, and syncretistic attempts to pronounce all things as equally good. It is a long-overdue effort to rescue hermeneutics from its enslavement to civil religion and blind nationalisms. This gift from Friesen and Stoner will be on my shelf as a comrade on the journey of Biblical interpretation. I recommend it for all those who diligently seek to understand the church’s vocation as peaceful, prophetic, and contextually relevant alternative communities, inspired by the whole Scripture that is ours to cherish.”
--Robert J. Suderman, Secretary of the Peace Commission of Mennonite World Conference
“I concur with Stoner and Friesen that our imperial way of life is an endgame, and that North American Christians must be about embodying alternatives. I also wholeheartedly agree with their contention that the Bible represents “the most diverse and time-tested set of writings we have on the intersection of life, empire and faith.” It thus deserves our careful attention. This project seeks to encourage and resource that task of nurturing biblical literacy. The authors refer to it as a “book written by laypersons for laypersons,” but the truth is, we are all laypersons when it comes to resisting and transforming the imperial values and structures that inhabit and surround us. That is why reading scripture together with eyes wide open to our world is so urgent, and this project so welcome.”
“And I wholeheartedly agree with the authors’ contention that the Bible represents ‘the most diverse and time-tested set of writings we have on the intersection of life, empire and faith.’ It thus deserves our careful attention. That is why reading scripture together with eyes wide open to our world is so urgent, and this project so welcome.”
--Ched Myers, author, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story, Founder, Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries
“This book shows how giving careful attention to scripture inspires a counter-cultural vision of Christian faithfulness. Examining the Bible book-by-book, Friesen and Stoner illuminate the many ways the biblical story, in diverse cultural settings throughout its long history, consistently challenges dominant narratives of greed, violence and power. The sheer number of passages examined here is impressive and helpful. Even more important is seeing firsthand the Bible’s capacity to unmask the false promises of empire in our day. I hope many congregations will take the opportunity to learn from and with this resource.”
--Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, Associate Dean for Leadership Education at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary
“It turns out there is an alternative to empire. Read this book for instructions for resisting the presumption that empire is inevitable.”
--Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law, Duke University
"If Not Empire, What? magnifies the sub-text of empire from Genesis through Revelation. It can help any teacher, preacher or discussion group leader to quickly spot the significance of empire and its alternative in any part of the Bible. As a whole, the book can help any group daring to wrestle with the authors' pressing question: What does it mean to form a society now that is just, liberating, and sustainable? It offers a corrective in a culture that often views salvation through the lens of individualism, politics through the lens of nationalism, and well-being through the lens of consumerism. Alongside a Bible commentary, this book contributes to translating ancient society's faith questions into perspectives and practices of resistance for today.”
--Dorcas Miller Lehman, Campus Pastor and Guidance Counselor, Lancaster Mennonite High School
“Jesus was a rebel. He was a revolutionary. But we need more than a cliché. We need to dive into the Bible and understand the empire in which Jesus lived and how he interacted with it. Then, we need to consider what it means to follow the revolutionary Jesus today. John and Berry have written
a manifesto to the church. At its core, this book is a call to discipleship... but do not be fooled, it is an invitation to join a holy uprising. It is about turning the world upside-down -- so that the last are first and the first are last, the mighty are cast from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up. What are we waiting for?”
--Shane Claiborne, author and activist; founder of The Simple Way community
“This is a refreshing and exciting read—detailing some of the most important elements of my faith--living amid the powers that be and asking what my faith has to say about that. Too rarely do I hear messages from the pulpit that talk about the powers of domination and violence and how we are many times implicated, explicitly or implicitly. I was struck by chapter 19--Jesus teaches us the way of nonviolence, love, forgiveness, and grace. We’re called to follow Jesus’ example—to imitate him and show love to our enemies. And a lot of times we don’t understand—just like the disciples often didn’t understand Jesus. The Messiah did not come to establish God’s empire by wielding the sword, as the disciplines were presumably expecting. Jesus came to establish an empire through the power of love and forgiveness. Which Jesus do we believe in and what does that mean for how we live out
--Peder Wiegner, MBA Candidate, Eastern University