“The Play’s the Thing”

Advent 2021 Blogpost

It is Advent, the beginning of a new (liturgical) year. Time to bring my blog up to date to cover the research I have done this last nine months. I’m glad still to be alive and (relatively) well. After I have this serve as a post for my blog, I will turn it into a new blog outline. Those of you who have been following my efforts will know it is in a sense like a two act play with an interlude between.

The play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Shakespeare in Hamlet

Act 1: The Past: The First two centuries CE. The first act is provided by two groups of biblical scholars, the combined work of which have filled in a gap in our knowledge of the history of the church. It has taken scripture scholars two thousand years to finally fill in what the church looked like. and what it saw its mission as, in those first two centuries after Jesus. This is captured in the title of the Westar Institute’s (Jesus Seminar) book which has just been released: After Jesus Before Christianity.

Scene 1: One group of academics consists of those who have been making clear to us the absolute relevance of the Roman Empire in understanding scripture and the church between the time of the crucifixion of Jesus and the crucifixion of the church (Constantine and the third century of the new faith.) Warren Carter, New Zealand Methodist scholar, encapsulates this by saying that “the Empire isn’t the background for understanding the New Testament; it is the foreground.” One cannot interpret the New Testament without identifying it within the empire. The early Jesus people could not escape the political oppression, the economic exploitation, the personal demeaning and social violence of the empire in every aspect of their lives, day in and day out.

Scene 2: If Empire defines the exterior setting for early Christians, then the other group of academics we must plumb are those who introduce us to what takes place when the early Jesus followers gathered. If the reality ‘empire’ was omnipresent in and and omnipotent to their external life, then what the second group of academics termed the Greco-Roman Meal gatherings were what took place when they met indoors. Most of the population of the empire consisted of ‘displaced persons’, people whose nation had been conquered by the Romans and who were dispersed in some other place than where they had lived, often as slaves, and by their scattering could more easily be controlled, and less able to rebel. Though these meals had different names and were the major form of social gatherings, they were used first among the Greeks and then borrowed by the Romans, they had basically the same format. From the time that Plato illustrated in his work “The Symposium”, and for the next 800 years, if you wanted to meet, this was the format of meeting. The early Jesus people gathered in groups of six to seventeen persons for a full evening meal followed by conversation about how to be faithful to the message of non-violence and unconditional divine love in a violent and demanding world.

Interval: The Present: The curtain has come down on the first act of this play dealing with the Roman Empire, Jesus, and the Empire of God. In the lobby, drink in hand, you discuss with friends what you have seen and ponder what will be in act two. Questions come to mind:

  • Is there an empire in our world today?
  • Is it as destructive for our world as Rome was for its world?
  • What attitude or actions did Jesus’ people take to the Empire?
  • What attitude or actions do Jesus’ people today take toward empire?
  • Do we resist as our forebears did in the first two centuries?
  • Or do we comply like the church of Constantine? 

The ringing of the bell calls us back to watch Act 2

Act 2: The Future: As we move into the 21st century and beyond, where do we find the church putting the meat on the bones of the academic research of Act 1? To this point I have found a whole bibliography of books that tell us what ‘they’ did in the first two centuries. So where do we find ‘us’ applying this material within our congregations today?

I shall just briefly refer to the only four books I am aware of which are written to apply our knowledge of Empire to the church’s mission by clergy and lay persons.

The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus, Robin R. Meyers
Robin is minister emeritus of a UCC church in Oklahoma City and a member of the Westar Institute.

Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions For the Church in a Time of Empire, Rick Ufford-Chase
Rick has been involved in community and social action for years. A Presbyterian lay 
person, he currently is part of an ecumenical interfaith community in N Y state.

Jesus vs Caesar: for people tired of serving the wrong God, Joerg Rieger.
Joerg is professor of theology at Vanderbilt and a German Methodist. He is active around 
issues of working people, socialism, and unions.

Sacred Resistance: A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent, Ginger Gaines-Cirelli
Ginger is minister of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington D C, long involved in social justice issues.

Scene 1: From the local level: What have I found in looking at congregations and the clergy for specifics? So far, not too much; just those four books One place I haven’t looked is in the seminaries. Often, the pattern has been that a new paradigm (or in this case, the discovery of an old paradigm that has been lost) begins with the scholars, moves to the seminaries where new clergy are inspired, and then makes its way out into the congregations as those clergy begin their ministries.

Scene 2: From beyond the local level: individual authors I will write more in this scene and the next of this theoretical play, as it has been where my research has taken place during the last nine months. It was discouraging to me that I had been able to locate so few resources concerned with applying the two strands of recent biblical research that I lay out in the first act.

1. I did find a number of authors who saw the presence of empire in our time and attempted to relate this, either to the church or to other concerned people. For instance, David Korten, particularly in his book The Great Turning. His subtitle is instructive, From Empire to Earth Community. He sees the present empire, which he calls corporate consolidation, as only the latest of those in the 5000 years of civilization. Differing from previous empires, our present one endangers not only people, but the planet itself. For colleagues in his battle, he turns not to the church but to an enlightened ‘earth community.’

2. Antonio Gonzalez, a Spanish Mennonite theologian, has written from a Christian perspective: to be more precise, the book is called a social theology: God’s Reign and the End of Empires. There is a recognition, like that of Korten, that there has always been an empire exploiting and oppressing those without a voice on the fringe of society. I find it to be an exciting book to read only to find toward the end of it that he does not think the middle class churches will be of any real help to counter today’s empire. Instead, he looks to the pentecostal charismatic churches of Latin America, made up of the poor, for those who will resist empire.

3. To balance Gonzalez’ book’s Liberation Theology leaning analysis, one can turn to another analyzed from the right by an evangelical: Subversive Witness by Dominique Dubois Guilliard. Where Gonzalez says that one does not turn to the middle class western churches to confront empire, this author claims to show how people can leverage their privilege to resist sin and effect systemic change. I’m not sure, given the present political realities, whether one can rely on the evangelical churches dealing with positive systemic change. I would love to be proven wrong.

4. Perhaps we might turn to a former evangelical. Brian McLaren has morphed from his conservative beginnings through the emerging church to where he is now as a popular writer of the middle left. In his Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, McLaren discovers the reality of empire and its influence on us: he writes of the need to “change the economic, environmental, military, political, and social crises that have overtaken our world”. I think most of the readers of my blog will find this work of his creative mind well worth reading.

5. The next book is transformational for me. It is written by a professor of social ethics in two seminaries in the Bay Area’s Graduate Theological Union. But she is also one of 13 consultant to the World Council of Churches on what I will be covering in the next scene. What is significant about Cynthia Moe-Lobeda’s Resisting Structural Evil: Love a Ecological-Economic Vocation, is that it answers for me what has not been answered so far: where are the fruits of the biblical studies of act 1 seen as relevant to the church of the present day? Where are they being applied?

In chapter 3 she introduces the concept of three ways of moral visioning. How, she asks, can we see and acknowledge the destruction of our present economic forms on humans and the planet without falling into despair? Her answer is to use what she calls Critical Mystical Vision. The three dimensions of moral vision begin with ‘seeing what is’. We then try to see ‘what could be’. Underscoring these two is the vision that there is a Force in the universe that wills abundant life for all.

The second stage includes becoming aware that there are many places where people are struggling to bring into being an alternative. “It is the visionary and practical organizing of little-known groups throughout the world aimed at surviving, resisting, and transforming neoliberal global economic arrangements…These people are constructing viable and vibrant alternatives” This is what I have been looking for!

Scene 3: From beyond the local level: church bodies. Even before I encountered Resisting Structural Evil a Facebook acquaintance had asked if I was aware of the work being done by global church bodies to oppose today’s empire. Tony Addy is part of the United Reformed Church in Britain who is involved in church mission on the Continent. My subsequent researching revealed the following:

For its international assembly in 2004 the World Communion of Reformed Churches had produced a document, The Accra Confession. Meeting at a location where African slaves had been held prior to being put on ships for the fateful trip across the Atlantic, these Christian leaders from both the global north and the global south toured the sites: two ‘castles’ on the coast of Ghana. These facilities held the African slaves in the lower floor dungeons. But above this were the quarters of the enslavers, including a chapel where they held their Christian services.

Appalled by the signs of their religious tradition’s participation in the oppression and exploitation by colonial empires of previous centuries, they called upon their various denominations (Presbyterian, Congregational, United Churches…) of more than 100 million followers to repent of the sin toward their fellow humans of color.

Subsequent documents were written in the following several years by some of their organizations such as the Council for World Mission, and the United Church of Canada. Relevant to my research, a couple of those documents’ titles and content acknowledged today’s presence of empire and for the need of the church to oppose it: Mission in the Context of Empire (CWM), and Living Faithfully in the Midst of Empire (UCCan)

In the meantime, the World Lutheran Federation, composed of more than 80 million adherents, had likewise produced a book length document, Being the Church in the Midst of Empire. Each of the chapters is written by a different Lutheran scholar and covers a wide spectrum of issues concerning empire today.

It is obvious that these church leaders, many with offices in the headquarters of the World Council of Churches at 150 Rue De Ferney in Geneva, must have been in conversation. For in the midst of the aforementioned documents, the World Council of Churches produced their own, AGAPE: Alternative Globalization Addressing Peoples and Earth. In it, not only had AGAPE’s writers acknowledged the presence today of ‘empire’. They went beyond that, first, by giving that empire a name, Neoliberal Globalization or Neoliberal Capitalism, but they then set about spelling out an alternative based not on growth and profit or wealth disparity, but one undergirded by Christian values.

To produce AGAPE, the WCC had sought 13 global ecumenical persons to resource their process. (One of these is Cynthia Moe-Lobeda.) They are now working beyond AGAPE. They continue their work under the rubric of a New International Financial and Economic Architecture (NIFEA). I have had the opportunity to listen in on a couple of Zoom conferences where they were focussing on developing a Law on Ecocide and on De-growth. As a Methodist, I find joy in reporting that the World Methodist Council, representing about 80 million Methodist and Wesleyan adherents, has joined our Reformed and Lutheran brothers and sisters in this project. It is appropriate for Methodists to be involved in this social justice issue. After all, John Wesley’s was one of the first voices speaking out against slavery. In addition, it was the Methodists who, at the beginning of the Social Gospel era, developed the Social Creed.

2 thoughts on ““The Play’s the Thing”

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