How then shall we live?: Empire and advent  0

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear

 

In a previous post I began to write about the Northumbria Community’s concept of ‘living the questions’, in particular how the question ‘Who is it that you seek?’ leads to a worldview built on taking Christ as the clue to understanding the world.

This advent I have been thinking of the Northumbria Community’s second question, ‘how then shall we live?’ It is a question that applies to my personal life, but also to bigger issues, such as the response to current events like the attacks in Paris.

Empire

As I have previously said, the metaphor exile resonates with me in my faith journey. To be in exile is to be living as a minority in the midst of an empire. It is to struggle to maintain an identity and a way of living in the midst of a system which is constantly trying to co-opt you into its way of thinking. Interestingly it is being increasingly recognised that the vast majority of the Bible was written from precisely this perspective and to answer the question ‘how then shall we live?’ in that situation. Empire in the Bible is Egypt, Babylon and Rome.

The empire we are living with today is perhaps not so much political and territorial as ideological. It has been described as follows:

Consumers by M.O.B.I CC BY 2.0
Consumers by M.O.B.I CC BY 2.0

We speak of Empire, because we discern a coming together of economic, cultural, political and military power in our world today, that constitutes a reality and a spirit of lordless domination, created by humankind yet enslaving simultaneously; an all-encompassing global reality serving, protecting and defending the interests of powerful corporations, nations, elites and privileged people, while imperiously excluding even sacrificing humanity and exploiting creation; a pervasive spirit of destructive self-interest, even greed – the worship of money, goods and possessions; the gospel of consumerism, proclaimed through powerful propaganda and religiously justified, believed and followed; the colonization of consciousness, values and notions of human life by the imperial logic; a spirit lacking in compassionate justice and showing contemptuous disregard for the gifts of creation and the household of life.1

Empires, ancient and modern, seek to colonise the mind, to capture the imagination and to convince their subjects that there is no conceivable alternative to the way things are. In order to do this they propagate powerful myths which become embedded into the consciousness of their peoples.

For example, the Roman Empire justified the violent subjugation of peoples, their subsequent taxation to pay for the privilege and the ruthless repression of opposition in terms of the Pax Romana.

‘Ironically, the Roman legitimation for continued military oppression was rooted in a story of peace, fertility and prosperity.’2

I cannot help wondering if a similar myth is not in operation today.

How then shall we live?

How should exiles live in the midst of an empire which presents itself as the only possibility for stability and prosperity in the face of impending chaos, and yet is in fact built on systems that ensure the ongoing poverty of most of the world?

It is tempting to think in terms of resistance, but to simply resist the empire is perhaps to have already conceded too much to it. It is to concede that the empire is the dominant reality. But, if I am taking Jesus Christ as the clue for understanding and living in the world, I also have to take the Kingdom of God as a present reality in the world.

Thus, when describing the social action of a small congregation in a deprived area, Tran refuses to describe it as resistance against the powers of globalisation. It is witnessing to what is actually the case; that God, not capitalism, reigns.

This is not resistance but simply what one does when Jesus is Lord, when the Kingdom has already come, when one believes, amidst the atheistic strictures of capitalism, the Good News.3

Live out of love, not fear

Living as if the Kingdom of God is actually a reality in the world is easier said than done. It demands a re-training of the imagination into new ways of thinking and behaving at individual and world levels.

I am finding that a deceptively simple phrase is providing a way of thinking about how to live as if the Kingdom is reality:

live out of love, not fear.

It applies to the fears and insecurities that lie deep within me, often unrecognised, yet affecting the choices that I make and the way I interact with other people.

But if the Kingdom is real it must also apply to the big issues we are facing today, for instance the response to Islamic extremism. Even as I write this, it feels naïve to say that the response to the Paris attacks should be driven by love, but if the Kingdom is in fact a reality, perhaps that shows just how much influence the thinking of the empire has colonised my mind.

fear-617131_640A response based on love, not fear, would see the end goal in terms of peace, rather than simply the destruction of all radical Muslims. This, would mean investing proportionately in non-violent peacemaking activities, which actually seems to fit with the widely held view that war alone cannot defeat an ideology.

A response based on love, not fear, would also stand up against the predominant reactions which result in the further marginalisation of Muslim communities and the hardening of attitudes towards refugees.

Again, the standard responses seems to feed the problem, rather than solve it. They drive people toward extremism without engaging with the ideology which is at the root of the problem. A response based on love, that builds bridges with Muslim communities and welcomes refugees, would instead work against many of the things that are driving people towards extremism.

As I mentioned above, even talking about a response out of love seems naïve in the face of the predominant rhetoric of the empire. How can we hold on to the alternative view of the world presented by Jesus, when it is such a minority, even unpopular, view?

Advent: practising hope

Sidewalk Stencil by Franco Folini CC BY 2.0
Sidewalk Stencil by Franco Folini CC BY 2.0

Communities of faith in exile must deliberately and intentionally practice hope.4 This defiant expression of hope led to the expectation of Messiah in the Old Testament; a hope that God would be involved in the midst of very difficult personal and political circumstances in the present, and a hope that a time will come when the Kingdom will be the only reality.

Advent is important as a deliberate and intentional expression of hope. It is when we sing the evocative words of exile:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel

and express our hope:

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel

 

 


 

1 Definition of empire from the Globalisation Project – Uniting Reformed Church in South Africa and Evangelical Reformed Church in Germany. Quoted in Council for World Mission, ‘CWM Theology Statement 2010’, CWM: A Partnership of Churches in Mission, 23 May 2011, http://www.cwmission.org/theological-papers/cwm-theology-statement-2010.

2B. J Walsh and S. C Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005), 61.

3Jonathon Tran, Foucault and Theology (Continuum International Publishing Group, Limited, 2011), 6.

4W. Brueggemann, Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles (Westminster: John Knox Press, 1997), 105–6.

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