Resisting Empire

Inspired by a coffee conversation this morning with my flatmate (have I said lately how much I love my flatmate?)… reflections on empire and faith, informed by Mitri Raheb, Jean Zaru, John Howard Yoder, and William Cavanaugh. It’s an old paper, so it’s a bit long and academic but hopefully not too dry. =)

For this post, I summarize four books, noticing similarities and differences between them as a beginning exploration of how faith might encounter empire. He Came Preaching Peace is a collection of essays and speeches by John Howard Yoder, many of which are engaged with scriptural interpretation and interpretations of peace theology. This is explicitly an in-group communication for peace church people. Because of this, he does not take time to explain some of the foundations he might otherwise explain (for example, he names dualism and its dismantling as one of these foundations). Each chapter in this book stands alone; as with much of Yoder’s writing, themes arise repeatedly, but little effort is made to systematize or synthesize the various writings.

One of the primary themes in this book is love of enemies that is not based on pragmatism but rather obedience: “Christians love their enemies because God does so, and commands his followers to do so. That is the only reason, and that is enough.” (Loc 163) Likewise, he insists that we follow Christ even when the world is not ready to follow, even when systems of government will not give up fighting. The “call is simply an invitation to believe, really to believe, to believe even though many others do not, to believe even though the proof is not yet final.” (948)

Another theme that arises only early in the book but is helpful here is the understanding of Christianity as a nationality and of nationalism as a religion. For Yoder, this underscores a central understanding of Christ in relationship to the disciple, namely that Christ is Lord and evokes from his followers total loyalty. In War of the Lamb, Yoder will clarify this as a loyalty to a person and a covenant, not an adherence to rules or legalism. Yoder considers Christianity to be an identity requiring a loyalty that precludes and rises above national identity: “For Christians to seek any government’s interest – even the security and power of peaceable and freedom-loving democracy – at the cost of the lives and security of our brothers and sisters around the world, would be selfishness and idolatry, however much glorified by patriotic preachers and poets.” (241)

Another theme throughout the essays is that of rethinking power, wisdom, and strength. Along Pauline lines, Yoder sees the vulnerability and defeat of the cross as a revelation of a new kind of power and wisdom, a power of love and a wisdom that subverts the rules of violence. Nonviolent action is, for Yoder, an enactment of this kind of power: “When the Christian whom God has disarmed lays aside carnal weapons it is not, in the last analysis, because those weapons are too strong, but because they are too weak.” (311) This obedience trusts completely in the God who created human beings in their own image, and sees that image in the faces of those who would be enemies. When “we want a symbol of power that proves itself to us, without need for faith, by its own overwhelming impact,” (1211) instead we get a suffering Servant who yet somehow has power to transform.

Another book by Yoder, War of the Lamb, is a book published posthumously, planned by Yoder himself before death, and intended for a very different audience. In this collection of essays, he engages the ecumenical scene much more intentionally, engaging in dialogue with thinkers like Niebuhr and Cahill and with theologies like Just War Theory. Stassen says, in his introduction, that “Yoder is well known for arguing on behalf of an ethics of faithfulness rather than effectiveness (66),” but here, concerned with translation, he seems more ready to admit of some possible effectiveness. Similarly, his tone is much less confessional than the Christologically-centered, aforementioned book. For example statements like the following, while not admitting of any pure utilitarianism, open a door for talk about effectiveness and “working,” at least in a long-term and general sense: “Suffering love is not right because it ‘works’ in any calculable short-run way (although it often does). It is right because it goes with the grain of the universe, and that is why in the long run nothing else will work.” (83, emphasis in original)

This allows him much more sustained discussion about the connections between pacifism and just war theory (which, he points out, are more alike in their aims than different), a dialogue in which he critiques each tradition in terms of the other. Yoder suggests that nonviolence can learn discipline from just war theory, including a careful understanding of authorization, finite and attainable demands, and calculation of peripheral violence. Just war theory can learn to question whether all possible alternative measures have been considered. In the end, though, he heavily critiques just war theory as being good in principle but in all cases not taken seriously enough for it to provide an actual deterrent to war.

Seeking this kind of ecumenical dialogue, Yoder examines figures like Tolstoy (and his politics of hope), Gandhi (and his soul-force), and King (and his identity of means and ends), alongside the broader realms of church history (especially Constantinianism), Hebraic vision as seen in the Hebrew Bible, and apocalyptic literature. Throughout these examples, he speaks God’s sovereignty, loyalty to God rather than state, and the “certain victory of God” that is “correlated with his people’s faithfulness but not with their power.” (1308)

Several other themes in this book include love of enemy; a down-and-dirty guide to conflict resolution; a strong statement (and supporting argument) that conflict avoidance is not peacemaking and that conflict should be considered a sign of growth and creativity to be harnessed, not stifled; and the false dichotomy of withdrawal and involvement.

Alongside these two books, I also read two by Palestinian Christians with their own approaches to the violent rule of empire over their own subjugated people. The first was Occupied by Nonviolence, by Jean Zaru, a Quaker woman who has done much activism in the World Council of Churches, speaking around the world on behalf of her people. Her underlying affirmation is that the telling of stories is redemptive in itself – if stories are witnessed and told, which Zaru enacts as her own calling, those with the power to do something will act on behalf of the humans who are subjugated. “By telling our stories, we resist the diminishing of the reality of our lives. We resist vague and generalized abstractions, and we maintain the urgency and intensity of the concrete.” (200)

Given that, she tries to instill in her Palestinian students “a sense of empowerment, a sense of competence,… and a sense of optimism about the future. While we do not know what the future holds, we do know that we hold the future in our hands.” (275) In the midst of this, she names isolation and disconnection as a tool of the empire and understands faith and religion as nurturers of connection and relationship, and thus an antidote to the effects of subjugation.

Zaru emphasizes human rights, naming that those rights of Palestinians have been declared by the UN to be violated by Israel. She calls upon the UN to hold Israel accountable to following through on agreements and submitting to the discipline of the UN. At one point she goes so far as to say, “Conflicts can only be resolved politically and legally, on the basis of parity of rights and the global rule of law. “ (595) Regarding nonviolence, Zaru bases her commitment not to kill on human rights, as well: “My spirituality is rooted in the human dignity and human rights of all people, and the sacredness of Mother Earth.” (235) Zaru admits of a great struggle to keep faith in the midst of struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Finally, Palestinian Christian pastor and scholar, Mitri Raheb, begins his book, Faith in the Face of Empire, with the statement, “Jesus was a Middle Eastern Palestinian Jew,” a statement that (intentionally?) echoes African-American theologian James Cone’s statement that “Jesus is black.” Raheb continues on to take a several thousand year tour of the geopolitics of the area, demonstrating that this empire is only the most recent in a nearly unbroken line of occupation in Palestine. He also insists on the continuity of biblical and church history in Palestine (ie, that Christianity does not end in Palestine when Europe comes on the Christian scene). From those insights, he reinterprets the narrative of the Bible for Palestinian people. Rather than accepting the commonly held identity of Palestinians as Canaanites, he says that Palestinians today are like Israel at the time of the New Testament, and that Israel is acting as Rome. The twisting Israel has done of the story becomes an important point in Raheb’s construction: “Empires create their own theologies to justify their occupation.” (152) Raheb seems to agree with Zaru that the unheard story is the one that needs told, but Raheb is seeking to tell the story of a people as a whole, a story that finds its place in the sacred narrative of Raheb’s faith. This retelling rescues Palestine from being “theologically invisible.”

Raheb, like Yoder, has a vision of a strong God that calls for a loyalty that supersedes all other loyalties: “Believing that there is something more powerful than the empire is an important and necessary step toward questioning it. God questions the omnipotence of the empire. As well, seeing God on the other side of the empire queries and challenges the morality of the empire, which is a key link in its weakening. Faith in God becomes a strong factor in mobilizing people against the empire. Whereas armies might not dare to challenge the empire because of the power imbalance; faith in God can provide the necessary motivation to go against the empire even if doing so means sacrificing one’s life.” (1451)

Raheb sees isolation and division as intentional strategies of empire that aid in subjugation: “restoring a sense of community across ideological differences and geographical barriers is crucial for any community living under occupation. Occupied people often start to fight among themselves concerning the best way to resist the empire and consequently end up fighting one another instead of fighting the empire.” (1693) Cultural memory involved in telling a counter theology that locates Palestinian people in the story of salvation is Raheb’s primary weapon against this fragmentation. Raheb does not speak much explicitly of nonviolence, but his program of resistance is a nonviolent one.

Many similarities exist in the three authors, sometimes expressed and drawn forward in different ways. In theologies of nonviolence, all three authors mention this fragmentation and division as a primary problem to overcome when resisting evil systems. Thus, for all three, a primary solution is reconnection and community. However, for Raheb and Yoder, this connection is found through connection with a larger collective narrative. For Zaru, this connection is found through the telling of individual stories. Raheb and Zaru, in this, are much more attentive to silenced voices and invisible peoples than Yoder is.

All three base their nonviolent resistance, at least to some extent, on their understanding of the imago dei in all human beings. Zaru’s strategy for reform relies on the human rights being acknowledged but also enforced by UN and the national community. Likewise, her conviction that it is not right to kill comes from an understanding that even the perpetuators of empire have human rights and dignities. Yoder, on the other hand, has his eyes almost exclusively fixed on the nature of God rather than humans – seeing the image of God in humans is important because not to acknowledge that would be to violate their Creator.

Raheb seems to base his nonviolence on the conviction that violence does not work. Raheb writes, “violence is a culture unto itself; it is not something one dons like a hat when dealing with the ‘enemy’ and then sets aside at the end of the confrontation. Once violence enters the arena, it creates a culture that is very difficult to eradicate. In fact liberation in the true sense also means liberating the ‘enemy’ from its own violence.” (1914) Zaru’s conviction on this is less solid, and sometimes her anger at the Israeli empire comes through in a retaliatory tone. All three see evil as systemic, but Raheb and Yoder are more able to maintain hope for persons involved in evil to be redeemed – a foundation for love of enemy for both of them.

Given all of this, I argue that a nonviolence based not on human rights but on the story of God is a more durable and powerful weapon against occupation than an understanding of human rights and individual imago dei. First, as all of the authors note, isolation is a technique of occupation to keep people submissive. William Cavanaugh also draws upon this dynamic in relation to torture in his book, Torture and the Eucharist – the intended action of state torture (or the oppressive action of empire) is not primarily on human bodies but rather on social bodies, effected by atomizing those social bodies through breaking communal bonds. If isolation is the problem, the solution is connection. I am not convinced that Zaru’s storytelling, because of its individual focus and human rights emphasis, truly connects people to each other in the way she obviously intends. Both Raheb and Yoder rely, for connection of a whole people, on a narrative (for Raheb) or a God (for Yoder) under whom all the people can be connected and see themselves as one unit. This is partly problematic, however, because the narratives and images of God that Raheb and Yoder suggest might not be the narratives of each individual, so a feminist critique would perhaps note that the new narrative has just as much power to be imperial as the Israeli empire (in the case of Raheb).

The second reason that nonviolence based on human rights and an individual conception of imago dei seems to me to be less effective is because of the difficulty of maintaining a posture of nonviolence. Yoder’s insistence that we are nonviolent because of obedience to a God we trust, whose victory is sure and nonviolent, is helpful here, I think. Zaru wants to say that all humans are equally deserving of human rights and dignity. At the same time, occupation takes a psychological toll that she is devastatingly good at describing. Zaru relies on a hope or optimism that Palestine will be free of occupation. Raheb’s long view of constant occupation for millennia makes that a difficult optimism to hold on to. To say that the arc of the universe bends toward justice is not empirically justifiable most of the time in everyday life. It is even less so in the face of constant occupation. This hope in the power of nonviolence, then, must be based on something other than efficacy or it will not last. Thankfully, as Yoder points out, the character and story of God are possibilities for the basis of this unlikely and sure hope. Likewise, in the midst of occupation, it is not immediately clear that the soldier, the torturer, the bomber have equal human rights or equally have the image of God mapped onto them. Zaru’s righteous and understandable anger at points in her writing point to this reality. Thus, the need not to violate others, the imperative to love one’s enemy, in the face of real evil like long-term occupation, must have a basis in the character and plan of God rather than in the human evidence.

I return, however, with gratitude to some of my feminist colleagues’ voices echoing in my mind, to the question of privilege, authority, and power. Zaru perhaps has been given fewer authorizations to tell the kind of sweeping metanarrative that Yoder and Raheb attempt. Zaru perhaps has experienced the kind of silencing that can happen under even well-intentioned metanarratives. The question here is how this narrative that Raheb and Yoder propose as a collective understanding can keep itself from becoming either a tool of empire or from twisting itself into the narrative of empire. Yoder would say, I think, that because the power of the cross is in vulnerability and the wisdom of the cross is in foolishness, that this is a power and a wisdom that can never be used by empire – it is perhaps immune to misuse. However, his confidence in the “city on a hill” and “two types of people,” though not themselves coercive as he has stated them, would not take much human meddling (not to mention human power/privilege) before they might turn into weapons of exclusion and separation rather than love and faith. This is also called into question by Yoder’s own twisting of the Gospel narrative to justify his predatory and abusive sexual behavior toward women within the realms of his individual power.

Raheb calls to his readers to understand the message of the New Testament as one of connection beyond boundaries. This echoes Yoder’s love of enemies and vulnerable power of the cross, while also providing a helpful corrective to possible sectarian impulses (which Yoder would vehemently deny!): “I argue that the whole New Testament is a collection of narratives that challenge the then-existing exclusive national and religious narratives. The New Testament introduces a new lens; instead of identifying with one people over against the others, which is the traditional way of forming one’s identity, it calls people to reflect on the entire process of identification as misleading.” (1234)

All of this begs the question that I hope you’ll begin to answer for yourselves in your own contexts, for us as a body of Christ-followers: How do we tell collective counter-narratives that resist becoming tools of empire, that resist silencing dissenting voices from within those counter-narratives?  How do we identify as a people who belong and still resist excluding others?

2 thoughts on “Resisting Empire”

  1. “Resisting Empire” sounds interesting, but the link isn’t working, don’t know why. I also tried searching in the Patchwork Pietist but couldn’t find it there either.

    This may or may not relate, but recently Audrey shared some selections from my article about my song “Waging Peace” which does touch on the notion of empire. I’m a folksinger, not an academic, and this is more of a personal reflection of how and why I left Big Church many years ago but eventually (thanks to Jeremy Ashworth and Marcus Borg) finally found my way to the Brethren.

    I warn you, “Waging Peace” is not a happy song, but if you read the article you’ll understand why.



  2. Please forgive my oversight. The link at the bottom of your email works just fine. I was clicking on objects up at the top of your email notification. Great article. Thank you as always!

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