No exemptions

October 24th, 2017

Calling out empire is a pervasive and never-ending task because empire-making is what fallen-world individuals and groups do. No longer guided by original righteousness (Genesis 1 and 2), we are gripped by original sin (Genesis 3 ff), manifested in innumerable expressions of personal (egotism) and collective (ethnocentrism) self-interest.

Because we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), no one and no system is exempt from being called out for its manifestations of empire. In ways that vary in kind and in degree, we are all subject to the contaminating influence of empire. To make this point, Brueggemann illustrates each of the main characteristics of empire in the reign of Solomon — characteristics which continue into the present day. [1]

By recognizing the existence of empire in Solomon’s reign, one that included many good things and one in which the spirit of wisdom was seen, we are prevented from falling into two extremes.

First, it prevents idolatry — that is, a too-high and unrealistic assessment of “the kingdoms of this world” that is only possible by omitting certain facts and creating a sanitized history and current narrative. Idolatry creates illusion which destroys humility — the very quality which enables us to live in the world (or any subset of it) without selling our souls to it. Idolatry alleges that “the kingdom” is beyond critique and that to do so is a sign of disloyalty. Idolatry makes its earthly leaders little “saviors” — something the ego thrives on.

Second, it prevents anarchy — such dismantlement/elimination of the current “kingdom” only leads to the replacement of it with another one subject to the same sin and decay as the one destroyed. Anarchy arises from an arrogant self-righteousness that operates with a “purist mentality” where ends justify the means. When seen in religious contexts, anarchy forgets that Jesus himself said he did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill (restore and complete) it — to take it out of the hand of legalists (regulators) and put it back into the context of love (relationships) where it was meant to be all along.

Both idolatry and anarchy exist apart from love. Idolatry violates the love of God, and anarchy violates the love of neighbor. As we will see later in this series, the prophetic task is essentially about the re-construction of love through a restoration of the two great commandments–the very things lost in empire.

By using the reign of Solomon to illustrate the major characteristics of empire, Brueggemann is emphasizing the wholeness of the prophetic task (de-construction/re-construction), which is always at the heart of renewal and reform. Prophets are non-dualists–both/and people, not either/or people. They simultaneously critique empire and generate the energy necessary for the overcoming of it. [2]

By forgetting the union of de-construction/ re- construction, we continue to fall prey to idolatry on the one hand (“America first”) and anarchy on the other (“destroy the establishment”). Neither extreme saves the nation. Neither extreme expresses the prophetic task.

[1] Brueggemann explores the Solomonic aspects of ’empire’ in detail in chapter two of his book, The Prophetic Imagination, Second Edition (Fortress Press, 2012).
[2] Brueggeman emphasis the both/and nature of the prophetic task in chapter one of The Prophetic Imagination.

Previous article in this series:

Calling out empire

Steve Harper is the author of For the Sake of the Bride and Five Marks of a Methodist. He blogs at Oboedire.

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