Empire is a strong word. For many it brings up mental images of darkness, tyranny, and oppression. Simultaneously, however, it is a word absent from the imaginations of many. And this absence is the impetus leading to empires’ gains in momentum and perpetuation because empire works best unquestioned, unnoticed, or veiled in uncertainty.
For Mark Van Steenwyk, the time has come for exposing the Empire known as Christianity.
Not just exposing, but, to use his own language, naming and then repenting from this empire. Rather than focusing on the “logistical workings of empire”, Van Steenwyck proposes a light be shone upon “the ethos of empire.” Through the questions, “How does an empire understand and justify itself?” along with “[H]ow does the logic of empire (which is about security, domination and control) become intertwined with Christianity?” he directs our attention towards that which has gone on unquestioned, unnoticed, and veiled in uncertainty. He states,
Our proximity to power and affluence gives us a strange perspective from which to read the gospel. The logic of empire is the expeditious, organized pursuit of security, prosperity and control; and the best way to ensure these things is through domination. Our entire way of life depends upon this pursuit. Yet it is contrary to the life and teachings of Jesus, who foreswore security as he walked among the marginalized and challenged the civil and religious authorities; who offered people freedom and confronted those who sought to control others; who upheld and loved the weak rather than dominating them. We find ourselves trying to justify our way of life while worshiping One who challenges our way of life. (p. 28)
If Jesus’ life and work stands in stark contrast to the ethos of empire, how have we seemingly strayed so far? Many lay the blame at the feet of Constantine, but Van Steenwyk points us further back in history. Prior to the Constantinian nuptials of religion and Empire, there were decades of corruption found in the wealth and influence of bishops. The coalescence of imperial praxis with imperial theology allowed for the domination of the marginalized to flourish.
And this domination is not purely aimed and enforced upon humans. No, it is a totalitarian act engulfing people and resources because of the inherent relationship between the two. He who controls the one controls the other. The land does not escape the eye of the Empire.
Beyond this early and historical account of Christian imperialism, Van Steenwyk offers us a look at how the gospel was imperialized as Jesus was plasticized. Rather than being a gospel challenging Empire, it became “gospel of empire.” (p. 39). The taming of Jesus has opened up room for the pursuit of the American dream. This domestication has given us permission to shut Jesus up as we turn our ears to consumerism and individualism, among others. It is something we see everyday.
The solution Van Steenwyk purports is a repentance of this Christianity.
Repentance is not an event or an emotion, it is an ongoing invitation to engage the world differently – to see the world the way God does and act accordingly. Repenting of Christianity means adopting a posture of honest confession as we seek a better way. (p. 76)
We repent of this Christianity in order to follow Jesus further into his way of love that stands in stark contrast to Empire. This Jesus is not a mere historical person, but is a participant within the Triune God. We cannot address “the Compassionate Christ” (chp. 8) without “Encountering the feral God” (chp. 7) or “the Subversive Spirit” (chp. 9).
Moreover, the repentance offered here is not an intellectual account alone. It is a combination of both the mystical and the practical. Van Steenwyk offers us a spirituality tethered to an actual life carried out in concrete practices. Each chapter gifts us with exemplary practices aimed at attuning us to view the world the way God does and to act accordingly.
I highly recommend this book as it is a weaving together of justice and hospitality, theology and praxis, deconstruction and reconstruction. It doesn’t hold back in its naming the powers nor does it let us off the hook for our complicity. Thankfully, I have been graced with running in some of the same circles as the author and have heard many attest to the embodiment of the words found on these pages. If you are looking for a radical – truly radical: getting back to the root – approach which cuts to the quick, get this book. Read it, embrace it, allow it to challenge you, and then practice the nuggets of gold mined from within.
Purchase it here.
Full Disclosure: I received this book for free from InterVarsity Press with the condition I would read it and write a review. I was under no obligation to write an endorsement for the book; nor did I receive any monetary incentives. All words, unless cited with a page number, are my own and are not reflective of the authors or IVP.