Being Church Locus Imperii (On the scene of Empire)



For the past couple of weeks I have been thinking about this statement I read by D. Stephen Long in his book “The Goodness of God”. It has been hard to shake for some reason. It speaks to me in ‘how’ we do and understand church in our North American context. Specifically, in the American South where I live.

In regards “goodness” Long says, “No account of goodness can be present in our everyday lives without some social formation being the condition that allows us to make sense of it. Ethics does not happen in a vaccum; it always takes place within social and political formations.”(p.17-18)

The social and political formation called America in which I practice Christianity along with many other Christians has been described by many as a kind of Empire. There is alot of debate as to what constitutes empire, but many would find it difficult not to describe America in such a way. I don’t know if such a designation is necessarily a bad thing all the way around. I do know that it has alot to do with the political, economic, military power that one carries when they walk the globe.

As a continuation with imagineering a post-modern black church (or a church where a negro can feel at home) I want to discuss the many ways in which church-as-usual-comfortably-situated-in-the-belly-of-empire.

One of the ways church is comfortable with empire and severly lacks dis-ease is the current discussion on epistemology. You would think that our situaded-ness here in America would be characteristic of a group of people that worship and follow a God-become-peasant-killed-by-colonizers. Given the nature of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection one would think that it would create a group of people that find it very difficult to be comfortable while living in the most powerful empire on the planet. Why is the current buzz about epistemology a sign of being comfortable in empire?

Largely because there is little discussion about the socio-political formations that gave rise to particualr epistemologies. Hats off to theologians and pastors of the Radical Orthodoxy and post-liberal/conservative perspective who have kindly extended the discussion of epistemology to socio-political formations. As I quoted D. Stephen Long in the beginning: moral norms presuppose a particular socio-political formation. I would suggest that epistemic norms presuppose a particular socio-political formation as well. However well intentioned these discussion are I cannot help but see these kinds of debate arising out of a particular socio-political formation called empire. I think we have only begun half of the debate as it relates to epistemology.

I recently sat through a membership class in a local church here in Charlotte. The pastor appeared to be very keen on the current discourse relating to being missional, postmodern, emerging, etc.. But what I noticed about his talk on postmodernism is his understanding that this whole cultural shift boils down to epistemology. I think that’s half the battle.

As a church situated in empire (or locus imperii) we have to investigate what kind of socio-political formation is presupposed in our theologizing and ecclesial practices. We just might have to re-think and expand our understanding of conversion, repentance, baptism, Eucharist, and the many other practices and beliefs we name Christian.

I think Brian McLaren’s recent discussion on cultivating a post-colonial theology and praxis is a step in the right direction. Because we have had these discussions on epistemology in-the-air we are not cognizant of how we are colonized in our theological minds…or possibly the theological colonizers ourselves. More later.

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10 thoughts on “Being Church Locus Imperii (On the scene of Empire)

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  1. Wow! Very good. I am going to have to go back and re-read this post several more times. Then I have to figure out what that may mean. The joy of it is that being Locus Imperii here translates well to Biblical New Testament understanding, and not a little of the Old Testament understanding, of the people about their situation.
    Thanks for the challenge to keep thinking.
    Peace,
    David

  2. Hey Anthony,

    This post is prophetic in its importance. Being in the line of work I am in, my life brings be into contact with people from all cultures and nations, both here in North America and abroad. This global perspective has provided a distance from the culture here. I believe that you are right on the money with these observations and concerns.

    Peace,
    Jamie

  3. hey anthony,

    i’ve got to give you a call to catch-up soon…

    part of the question, I believe, is anthropological. I believe as we theologize about the role of the church in our socio-political, cultural landscape, the matter continually becomes one of hermeneutics. if we were to juxtapose our american culture against empires of old in biblical history, both pagan and Christian, we could actually see many of the similar parallels. Now the question begs, who do we believe ourselves to be in this story? For example, when we see Joseph, or Esther, characters Christians often like to identify with. We don’t often mention that they were either immigrants or exiles in their political context. though they became a part of the dominant ethos through providence,they were strangers in a strange land. God even continually told the Israelites themselves, to remember Egypt, and how they were strangers in a foreign land. So when we consider postcolonial theology and ethics, the socio-cultural context ( as you mentioned) of the bible needs to be taken seriously, because we need to see what our role in the empire may become. for we can easily succomb to it, or prayerfully play a prophetic role within it.

    Unfortunately, much of our theology until more recently, has been devoid of this aspect. what mclaren talked about therefore is the pioneering aspect.

    shalom,

    jose h.

  4. jose,

    Your point about the way we partially identify with key biblical characters is an excellent point. This point was brought home to me the other day when I was discussing with someone about the social and political context of Jesus’ death. It seemed to a tertiary issue for them. I am trying to figure out, as a teacher, how to show that Jesus’ political context and his job as the Son of God are all part of one piece.

  5. Anthony,

    I love the post, you raise many salient issues. I particularly like your description of the possibility of possessing colonized minds and a colonized theology. To some degree most of us are not aware of “the matrix” and are all subject to historicity of our moment in time. Seers do point paths that lead to “liberation,” however, oftentimes their visions scare us because they threaten our worldviews or even the established order. Isn’t any reason why our prophets both spiritual and social are slain before our very eyes?

    We are living in a bold new moment, even as technology exponentially expands our social order and psyches seem to absorb these shifts intuitively–at least for some.

    Question: As the emergent discussion moves forward, are we destabilizing the monopolistic hold that scholars had to “the goods” nomenclature, hermeneutical and epistomological discussions, or are we replicating the interests and/or vogue of the academy?

    Thank you for your continued provocative contributions.

    Devo

  6. Anthony,

    As I read your post I was reminded of the meeting between Jesus and Pilate, and the absurdity of that epistemological “discussion.” I thought about the way someone might approach that meeting looking at the social discourses operating there: One man, bound in chains. The other wearing a purple-lined cloak with an entire army at his disposal. The governor, educated in the hellenistic tradition, asks the prisoner: “what is truth?”

    To me, that’s a snapshot of the situation the church is in now. A church who has cozied up to the powers of empire asks any potential religious revolutionary: what is truth? Just before they wash their hands and go about business as usual.

    I didn’t mean for that to sound quite so bitter, but I do think epistemology on Pilate’s terms is a trap.

  7. Dave,

    That’s a great insight. Man…brother…I will have to meditate on that one.

    Your thought here is profound:

    “I didn’t mean for that to sound quite so bitter, but I do think epistemology on Pilate’s terms is a trap.”

    That is something worth meditating on for a minute.

  8. He, he…I don’t mean to spoil the comparison. but I read Pilate as a mere swindler. not even a cynic…just an extortionist (not of Jesus, but of his accusers). What’s implied in his rhetorical question is that “truth” belongs to the highest bidder (wink, wink). i think we’re given to confusing mel gibson’s shakespearean pilate for a true satrap. like all romans in the provinces, he understood the economy of payment in lieu of verdict.

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