Empire and the church's self-understanding

This volume insists that imperial forces do not exist apart from religious imaginaries. By tracking down the ecclesiological debate in global Methodism, we call attention to the forms in which visions about the church are marked by imperial forces. This is not new in the history of the Christian tradition, a faith tradition that emerged in the context of the Roman Empire. Neither is it new to Methodism, a tradition that emerged in the context of the British Empire in the eighteenth century and grew exponentially alongside the increasing role played by the United States in the global stage from the nineteenth century onward. Methodist and Wesleyan theologies have always been generated in tense relation to imperialism. How has this intimate connection between Methodism and imperialism shaped the vision of a global denomination in the twentieth and twenty-first century? Is the vision condemned to be just another example of the impact imperialism has on the Christian faith? Or might there be forms of imagining the Methodist theological tradition as offering an alternative to imperial theologies?

In several theological disciplines, the introduction of Empire as a central category of analysis has been extremely generative. Empire has served historical studies in support of research that observes the development of Christian traditions alongside the progress of imperial forces. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza narrates how the study of empire reshaped biblical studies and the understanding of the formation of the Christian canon as well as its study in the present.[1] Similarly, Richard Horsley has amplified the study of early Christianity with a keen attention to how the context of the Roman Empire impacted the shape of a budding Christian identity, which often contradicted and resisted imperial forces.[2] A focus on empire has allowed theologians to scrutinize how theological categories have been shaped in political and social circumstances impacted by imperialism. As the authors included in the volume Empire and the Christian Tradition demonstrate, revisiting themes and figures in historical theology with the lens of Empire is a salient task that produces new perspectives in Christian thought.[3]

Theologians Néstor Míguez, Joerg Rieger, and Jung Mo Sung tease out the “spirit of Empire” to address the ethos engendered by imperialism. Its global reach “generates a ‘collective spirit’. . . that allows and approves of certain behaviours, reactions, feelings, and attitudes.”[4] Hardt and Negri’s claims about the subject-forming force of Empire invited theological reflections on how theological imaginaries often remain caught up in an imperial paradigm. In their view, “Empire presents its order as permanent, eternal, and necessary.”[5] The spirit of empire substantially shapes our visions of God and our ecclesial structures. From a theological perspective, that which is received in faith as a perennial truth ought to be investigated carefully so as not to be confused with imperial images being projected as coeternal. In terms of ecclesial structures, attention to Empire invites vigilance to scrutinize how power flows in the context of a global denomination. Empire seeks to be pervasive and all-controlling. No theology can claim immunity against these forces; no church can claim to be outside of the spirit of empire.

In Joerg Rieger’s concise definition, empire refers to “massive concentrations of power which permeate all aspects of life and which cannot be controlled by any one actor alone.”[6] Empire’s reach is therefore insidious but not all-consuming. While imperial forces amass significant power and aspects of life, their claims for omnipotence tend to fall short. For theologians engaged in empire studies and anticolonial theologies, this prompts the thought of new images of God that emerge in the cracks of imperial power. Rieger states, “One of the key purposes of the study of Christian theology in the context of empire has to do with a search for that which cannot be co-opted by empire, and which thus inspires alternatives to empire.”[7] Rieger refers to this as a theological surplus. The term speaks to the residues that empire seeks to suppress and that nevertheless show up, contrary to the policing efforts of imperial forces.[8]

But in its expansion and its global reach, in its impetus to shape all according to its image and likeness, it also fosters that which it cannot contain. A justice-seeking theology must continuously assess its premises, discern the spirits, and seek out the movements of God’s Spirit beyond the spirit of empire. For Keller, the imperial condition of Christianity might find its antidote in the interstitial, the sites where the inescapable reach of imperial forces nevertheless produces alternatives to Empire.[9] It creates the conditions for its own questioning, for its own potential dissolution. In its global aspirations, empire fails to completely create a world that replicates its models of power and its structure of authority. In its drive to globality, empire meets local stories that present a counter-story to the imperial vision of the “globe.”[10]

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It is the both the opinion and the commitment of the authors in the book that the Methodist traditions have not been subsumed by imperialism. While not uncritical to the impact of imperialism on Methodism, the testimony offered by the chapters gathered in this volume is that there is a theological surplus that remains active in Methodist communities and their theologies. While imperial forces seek to control everything, God’s work exceeds the grasp of empire. The force and vitality of Methodism relies on its ability to encounter God’s grace in the interstices of empire.

The flow of power under imperialism is an everlasting vertical force that moves from the centers of power to its peripheries. Contributors to this volume detect several instances whereby Methodism obeyed this logic. Paying close attention to these imperial forces has a double significance. On the one hand, it trains Methodist leaders and theologians to acknowledge that the church is not immune to the forces of empire, even when it seeks to preserve itself from the involvement in geo-political matters. All ecclesial debates are political and, we must insist, the task of forming a global denomination ought to be situated in the context of American national and corporate expansionism in the twentieth century. On the other hand, paying close attention to imperial forces might create the necessary space to discern counter-hegemonic ways of being the church. This is the constructive task that we seek to embrace in this volume. We hope that readers will be able to recognize how Methodism also found ways of negotiating forms of power that are cultivated on the underside of empire and whose flow is horizontal, integrative, and democratic.

A global ecclesial body need not obey the logic of empire. The central ecclesiological commitment to connectionalism that orients Methodist traditions can be perceived through the lens of a counter-hegemonic form of transnational and transcultural solidarity. In Wesleyan ecclesiology, connectionalism marks the commitment to a vision of the church that imagines itself as a network of communities gathered by the Spirit of God. The connectionalism of empire operates in the logic of annexation and homogenization. Its connectionalism is a vast network for the imposition of a singular perspective and of an exclusive and exclusionary mode of assembling. It is a gathering that gains shape through fundamental acts of exploitation and exclusion. Resisting this imperial ecclesiology would entail the formation of ecclesial networks where divine grace is received and perceived in the coming together of the planetary assembly. The connection puts the members of the church body in relation to a life that emerges in the spaces of grave tensions and amidst the struggle for just relations.[11]

The authors in this volume share historical and theological perspectives that indicate the negotiations that Methodists performed in their attempt to form a global ecclesial body. We shall see that imperialism is stamped in many of these negotiations. But we hope that readers will notice that this is not the whole story. In ecclesial connections so marred by imperialism, we share here glimpses of possible modes of transnational and transcultural connections. They testify to the possibility of a Methodist connectionalism that insisted on spreading its roots across the borders and boundaries set by empire.

Excerpted from Methodism and American Empire: Reflections on Decolonizing the Church, edited by David W. Scott and Filipe Maia. Copyright © 2024 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, The Power of the Word: Scripture and the Rhetoric of Empire (Min- neapolis: Fortress, 2007). For a perspective on the impact of postcolonial studies in biblical research and hermeneutics, see Tat-siong Benny Liew and Fernando F. Segovia, Colonialism and the Bible: Contemporary Reflections from the Global South (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2018).

[2] Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003); Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and the Politics of Roman Palestine (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2014).

[3] Compier, Kwok, and Rieger, eds., Empire and the Christian Tradition.

[4] Néstor Míguez, Joerg Rieger, and Jung Mo Sung, Beyond the Spirit of Empire: Theology and Politics in a New Key (London: SCM, 2009), 2.

[5] Hardt and Negri, Empire, 10–11.

[6] Joerg Rieger, “Christian Theology and Empires,” in Empire and the Christian Tradition, ed. Compier, Pui-lan, and Rieger, 3.

[7] Rieger, 1.

[8] See Joerg Rieger, Christ and Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 9–11.

[9] Keller, “The Love of Postcolonialism,” 224.

[10] See Walter D. Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking, Princeton Studies in Culture/Power/History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000).

[11] See Joerg Rieger, Grace under Pressure: Negotiating the Heart of the Methodist Tradition (Nashville: United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2011).

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