From its inception, Christianity has been shaped by empires.
Jesus was born under the Roman imperial occupation and governance of Palestine; when he was an infant, his family had to flee to Egypt to avoid the imperially appointed ruler, Herod Antipas. Jesus was crucified by the Roman Empire as a threat to imperial stability.
Christian traditions developed within imperial contexts from the Roman and Byzantine Empires to the high colonial empires of nineteenth-century Europe, often with the dominant church authorities in alignment with the imperial powers. Theology has been deeply influenced by the various forms empires have taken throughout history, but empire has never been able to completely control theology. There are always theologies that resist imperial ways of life and promote alternatives.
Theology and Empire
What is Empire?
Empire describes “the massive concentrations of power that permeate all aspects of life and that cannot be controlled by any one actor alone … Empire seeks to extend its control as far as possible; not only geographically, politically, and economically … but also intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, culturally, and religiously” (Rieger, Christ and Empire, 2-3).
Why should theology be concerned with Empire?
There are at least two reasons why theology must address the issue of empire. First, empire shapes the way we do theology – how we think about who God is, who humanity is, and how we are related to God and creation. Second, the history of colonialism and the ever-expanding process of globalization makes empire one of the primary issues to which theology must respond today – empire is a fact of our everyday lives that must be resisted if we hope to bring about the kind of justice Jesus sought to bring about in solidarity with those on the underside of the power of empire.
Can theology make a difference?
Empires require that people believe there is “no alternative” to the ways of empire. In this context, theology can show that there are other ways of life and that empire can never really achieve absolute control. The ministry of Jesus that resisted the oppression of the Roman Empire continues to inspire churches to identify alternative ways of life and to take up sides with those exploited and excluded by empire today in resistance to empire. If theology does not account for the ways empire has influenced Christian history and continues to influence the thought and practices of Christians today, then theology is bound to reinforce imperial ways of life and legitimate imperialism today in the name of God.
Can churches make a difference?
While empire represents massive conglomerations of power that demand responses at an international level, postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha makes the important observation that empire always begins at home. Accepting an imperial way of life always starts in the very communities in which we live every day. Therefore, resisting empire can begin in any church community as persons take up sides with those persons in the community around them who are on the underside of power, and who organize in resistance against those social structures and norms that exclude and oppress. With the ever-expanding reach of globalization, churches must also form broad coalitions in order to resist empire on national and international levels. The growing religion and labor movement has made progress both locally and globally.
by Joerg Rieger
Globalization is a catchword of our time, referring to the interdependence that affects us all. But we often meet globalization with extreme ambivalence, recognizing that it has both positive and negative consequences for economics, politics, and culture. Joerg Rieger makes the point that even theology, itself, can be a manifestation of globalization. At its worst, theology can reflect Western intellectual imperialism and at its best, theology can encourage a compelling vision of diversity within unity. The author articulates a theology of globalization as a diverse phenomenon that respects different ways of seeing and knowing, thus encouraging harmony rather than homogeny.
by Joerg Rieger
Although we loathe admitting it, Christians have often, through crusade, conquest, and commerce, used the name and power of Christ to promote and justify political, economic, and even military gain.
Rieger’s ambitious and faith-filled project chips away at the colonial legacy of Christology to find the authentic Christ – or rather the many authentic depictions of Christ in history and theology that survive our self-serving domestications. Against the seeming inevitability of globalized unfairness, Rieger holds up a “stumbling block” that confounds even empire.
by Néstor Míguez, Joerg Rieger, and Jung Mo Sung
In Beyond the Spirit of Empire, the authors analyze the global empire not only in its political and economic dimensions, but also in its symbolic constructions of power and in its general assumptions often taken for granted. How does empire mould human subjectivity, for instance, and how does it affect the understanding of humans within the whole of creation? What are the religious dimensions of empire, its claims to divine attributes like omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, eternity, and what about its alleged exclusiveness and pervasiveness that destroys human life and freedom, which turns politics into a banal matter? The authors propose to look beyond empire to the possibility of politics and freedom, to the recovery of the notion of people, to the importance of ongoing concern for the oppressed and excluded, and to a messianic faith that allows us to live in anticipation, though ambiguously, of the promise of new times to come.
by by Kwok Pui-Lan, Kwok Pui-Lan, Don H. Compier, and Joerg Rieger
Distinguished theologians assess the achievements and legacies of thirty- one theological giants in light of Christianity’s engagement with imperial power, conquest, colonization, and post colonial themes. A unique textbook anthology ideal for classroom use.
This volume is significant because it examines the depth of the impact of imperial ways of life on how Christians have thought about central theological themes like God, humanity, sin, and redemption, while simultaneously demonstrating how theology has challenged imperial ways of life throughout history. This diverse collection of theologians model how theologians can continue to draw on Christian tradition with awareness of the deep impression empire has had on theology and the residual resistance to empire present in historical theology.