A Contextual Essay from Prayerful Preparation

by Philip Peacock

Word Up!
The Accra Confession played a pivotal role in placing the concept of “Empire” firmly at the centre of ecumenical discourse. The word itself had, for some time, within both secular and theological academics, a certain circulation, and this was particularly true of the post-colonial scholars of both persuasions. Yet there can be no doubt that it was the Accra Confession that was responsible for the prominence of the word and concept within ecumenical circles. It is not insignificant that the proliferation of the concept within the wider ecumenical circles was the substantial contribution of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC, now part of the World Communion of Reformed Churches). After all, the communion of Reformed churches have for a long time have been at the forefront of the long road to freedom and justice of the ecumenical movement. Years ago at the Seoul assembly of the WARC the seeds of the justice, peace and integrity of creation movement were sown, which found its fruit in a variety of movements within the churches.

Yet though the idea of Empire received a certain currency since Accra 2004, it was not without controversy both within and outside Reformed circles. Debates, discussions and even unusual alliances developed around the word.1 Words are theologically significant, theology as an art; science and practice is about words and how they are used. Words cannot be distinguished from the dynamics of power that produce and popularize words. Mary Daly, the radical feminist theologian constantly reminds her readers of the importance of creating new words and giving old words new meanings.2

What’s in a word?
George Orwell in his famous book 1984 describes a dystopian future under a totalitarian government with one of the departments of this government being the department of languages. In a context of double-speak where each department does precisely the opposite of its name3 the department of languages seeks to reduce the number of words by the invention/imposition of “Newspeak,” a created language with the minimal number of words. This practice has two effects, which speak to us of the power of words themselves. On the one hand words enable us to describe our experience. Without the right words we will not be able to articulate the experiences we face. A far deeper power of words, though, is that not only do they enable us to describe our experiences, but words also have the power of enabling us to understand our experiences. The ability to have words, to have language, then, is the ability to both understand, as well as articulate what is happening around us. It is therefore always in the interest of the powerful to be able to control language. To control language is to be able to control people.4

It is in this sense perhaps that we can understand the imperative and the importance of using a word such as Empire. It offers us a means of understanding, articulating and therefore naming the experiences of those who suffer under the present global regime. Even further we can claim that the word Empire offers us a hermeneutical lens to uncover and expose the dynamics of power that we possibly find ourselves in.

Empire in the Bible and theology
Empire is not a new word, neither is it a new concept. The Bible narrative for example comes to us in a complex engagement with Empire. The biblical story is told and written in a context of Empire—Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Roman—and in the intertestamental period we had the Persians and the Greeks, as well. Sometimes the biblical texts seem to have imperial aspirations, at others they seem to seek collaboration with Empire, but at the same time there is also a counter-imperial narrative that is also central to both several parts of the Hebrew Bible, the life and ministry of Jesus and the epistles. Further apocalyptic literature is replete with a counter-imperial theology.

The doctors of the early church similarly had their own ambiguity towards Empire, while Eusebius seems to suggest that Empire lays the ground for the spread of the gospel, Hippolytus on the other hand argues that Empire is anti-church or rather the demonic imitation of the church. The same concerns are to be found in the radical Reformation’s ecclesiological visions of the relationship between the church and state and are perhaps also reflected in Calvin’s distinction between the visible and the invisible church.

The relationship between Christianity and Empire took a peculiar but familiar twist in the contexts of Christendom and in colonialism. Christianity became the justification for imperialism and imperialism used theological language to mask its violence. It is not insignificant that the missionaries and the guns came on the same ships to the colonized world. While again the history of missionary activity around the globe is complex and was not always complicit with Empire, the interconnections cannot be missed here.

Contextualizing Empire
While it is necessary to set the present discourse on Empire within this larger political and theological background, what is imperative is that we locate the use of the word Empire in the Accra Confession in its contextual setting.

It is important for us to remember that the Accra General Council took place in the turbulent period after the events of 11 September 2001. It is without doubt, and is becoming clearer now, that the events of 11 September fuelled the agenda of the military-industrial complex, if they were not already rooted in its logic. Decades of interventionist policies by both sides of the parties of the Cold War had now thrown up non-state actors with their own global agendas. While the rhetoric of anti-imperialism was and is being used by such actors, they continue to operate within its framework, with the intention of changing the regime but not the structure itself.

On the one hand we had and continue to have the complexities of West Asian politics that are literally fuelled by the political economy of the control of fossil fuel both at the local and the international level. In West Asia itself this has devolved into a serious crisis that has brought a local elite into conflict with the popular masses which has taken identity politics to a horrifically violent level. It has further resulted into a migration crisis of epic proportions on the one hand and the hardening of oppressive structures that affect workers, mostly migrant, in this area.

On the other hand the politics of a fossil fuel-dependent economy has global implications for the region and has had for some time now. Susan George in her article “Manufacturing ‘Common Sense’” offers a history of the “long march through the institutions” which has resulted in the logic of the market system becoming unchallenged and even normative.5 While there is no doubt that the history of the globalization of neo-liberal economics is long and torrid, its history can be traced to the Chicago School of Economics and perhaps even the School of the Americas and the techniques developed there. Perhaps a more immediate concern for us would be to take into account the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Initiated by a handful of neo-conservatives in the United States in 1997, the group had a developed a clear and definitive vision of the foreign policy of the United States that was clearly informed by notions of Empire. It is no coincidence that this neo-conservative think tank was funded by the arms and oil industries. It was this group that pushed for a war to initiate regime change in Iraq as far back as 1992.6

It is not surprising that nine days after the 11th of September the PNAC suggested that even though Iraq may not have been responsible for the attacks, it should be attacked and Sadam Hussein removed. Even more surprising was that Paul Wolfowitz, one of the founding members of the PNAC had as far back as in 1992 recommended the attack on Iraq.7

Therefore, in the years building up to Accra a clear and concerted effort that was intended to solidify the military-industrial-patriarchal complex became visible.8 In the aftermath and in the midst of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the need to respond in concrete theological language that was determined to discern the signs of the times was imperative, and Empire provided exactly this language. It offered us the ability to join the dots, to make the connections and most of all to expose the realities of what was wrong with our world while at the same time to discern what was a faith and a faithful response. The Accra Confession offered us language to speak about the same, to name it theologically and to be able to offer a response of faith to the same. It is important that it is called the Accra Confession in whatever sense we choose to define the term confession. The idea of confession has embedded in it a faith response.

Thinking of Empire today
Empire offered us a way to name this “coming together of economic, cultural, political and military power in our world today. This is constituted by a reality and spirit of lordless domination, created by humankind.”9 It is also fluid and changing. We must remember that the mechanizations of Empire are always dynamic, normaIizing oppression and disabling us from thinking beyond its framework; it hides behind the mask of “common sense” until we are made to believe that there is no alternative. It is not just important that we continually be able to discern the signs of the times, it is imperative that we continually do so. We have to ask the question whether Empire is adequate language today, as well as clarify what is it that we really mean by Empire? The context is always fluid precisely because the context is continually changing. Indeed the context has changed between the time I have started this paper and will end it.

Two particular points are of significance here, firstly as Foucault reminds us, power in modernity is no longer vested in persons, and we can perhaps also now say nations, but is rather found in the process of administration itself.10 It is not just that we have new state and non-state actors on the scene now but we have to come to understand that Empire lies beyond both of these; it is a system and a structure that has immersed itself in our thinking, as well as our social and economic structures. Not only have we seen an ascendency of Russia and China but a collusion between the interests of capital around the globe in a way that Empire is no longer a single entity but the multi-headed hydra of capitalism itself.11 A system more than a State.

Secondly the feature of Imperialism and abusive power that is part of this project is that it continually gets more and more sophisticated; it has the ability to normalize and normativize violence through the anonymity of structures on the one hand and mask its violence by what I would refer to as the banality of fascism on the other. While we are concerned with overt acts of violence, its glorification and a growing culture of overt racism and religious intolerance, which we justifiably should be, what we should also be in recognition of is the slow but sure education of each one of us into being loyal subjects of the market and consumerism, to such an extent that it becomes part of our normal selves.

This is in fact the beauty of the beast (and we will refer to this language in a bit): Capitalism has the ability of conquest and cooption of any and every resistance and contradiction. Capitalism creates alienation, social anxiety and depression but then goes on to sell us an anti-depressant; the market has come to have complete control. Perhaps the most apparent contradiction of capitalism today is the environmental crisis which is wreaking havoc on climatic conditions the world over. Yet capitalism calls us to “buy green” to assuage our collective guilt. Buying carbon miles, cloth bags and fair trade coffee has become the norm. Resistance has been reduced to consumerism. The beast is smarter than we imagine it is.

And we use the language of the beast because it is biblical language. The Bible, particularly apocalyptic literature, continually uses symbolic language to refer to Empire. The beast, the problematic term “whore,” etc. The reason perhaps is that the imaginers of apocalyptic literature understood this fuzzy, shifty nature of Empire that it can only be spoken of in symbols rather than in direct language.

And perhaps this is how we should conceive of Empire now, as symbolic language that represents this coming together of abusive power that cruelly destroys the lives and livelihood of many. The beast is a shape shifter, it changes form, it is beautiful in the sense that it charms us into its wiles. Yet it is destructive and evil and stands opposed to the God in whom we express faith. What Leipzig 2017 calls us into is a continual discerning of the signs of the times that we are always conscious of Empire, no matter what form it takes.

What is required of us as a World Communion then is an adequate and radical discernment of the sophistry of the beast so just like Accra we will once more be offered the gift of tongues to be able to coin new words and give new meanings to old words so that we shall be able to name the beast and in naming take the first steps in controlling it.

It is perhaps here that the Reformed theologian Mark Lewis Taylor becomes important for us. In his book Religion, Politics and the Christian Right, he speaks about Empire in terms of a spectres, spectres which he identifies as “American Romanticism and Contractual Liberalism.” These two spectres of Empire, Taylor contends, are to be countered through a prophetic spirit. Interestingly in all his analysis, Taylor is insistent that the ideas of spectres, souls and spirits are not transcendent but are in fact material forces. What we require then in our counter to the spectres12 of Empire is a prophetic spirit.13 While Accra gave us the language of discernment, what we need now is the language to counter what is being discerned. It is here that the work of the Globalization Project becomes useful. The Globalization Project has now become famous for its definition of Empire which we have referred to above, interestingly though, the Project saw the definition of Empire as not the fixing of what Empire means but really as a “starting point” for further discussions. The Project sees as the ethical consequences of reflection on the question of Empire the question of seeing, judging and acting, and this is outlined in its very last chapter. It is here that they speak of what possibly Taylor has referred to as “Prophetic Spirit” in terms of “Prophetic Envisioning,” a process of not merely overcoming the suffering of this world, but of envisioning an alternate one. Prophetic Criticism involves a laborious process of radical criticism of all that causes injustice. Prophetic Story-Telling affords a place for memory and re-membering a broken community. But we cannot stay at the level of narration but must move on to a place of Prophetic Analysis, which requires technical and academic rigor. This should lend itself to Prophetic Policy-making, which is done under the larger umbrella of Prophetic Action Faith, Hope and Love.14

The radical politics of Accra lay in its ability to discern the signs of the times. What is required is a continual commitment to radical discernment, as well as a prophetic spirit in which that discernment is converted into radical direct action. Accra led to the formation of unlikely alliances, of alternative visions, of theological articulation that sought to grapple with this beast. This is the task which we look forward to at Leipzig. Not just a discernment of the times but to see how we can move that forward towards a world characterized by justice.

1 Consider, for instance, the work done between the German and South African Churches, which has been reflected in work Dreaming a Different World: Globalization and Justice for Humanity and the Earth. Their common definition of Empire still continues to inform what and how Empire is defined in several usages of the term in Ecumenical documents. Cf. The Letter from Johannesburg.
2 Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990) p. 340.
3 For example the Department of Peace plans for war.
4 Colonial Missionary drives towards codifying grammar and translating texts; both biblical and native can also be read within this matrix.
5 Susan George, “Manufacturing ‘Common Sense’” in Achin Vanaik ed. Masks of Empire (New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2007) p. 46.
6 In the terms of the Statement of Principles of the PNAC itself: “America has a vital role in maintaining peace and security in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. If we shirk our responsibilities, we invite challenges to our fundamental interests. The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire. The history of this century should have taught us to embrace the cause of American leadership.” The PNAC, a massively funded and largely influential project has four basic principles. First is the need to increase the military budget. Secondly it sought to strengthen common allies and “challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values.” Thirdly it was to promote political and economic freedom abroad. And lastly the PNAC recommends the need to rise to the challenge of preserving and extending an international regime that is to accept responsibility for America’s unique role in preserving and extending an international order that would ensure the security and prosperity of American interests. The imperial intentions of the PNAC were not just explicit but were extremely influential.
7 Susan George, “Manufacturing ‘Common Sense,”’ p. 57.
8 The interconnections between war-capitalism and patriarchy were always present but they perhaps became more apparent during the Bush regimes. It was easier to connect the dots and lay open the military-industrial complex. A more detailed analysis, under the rhetoric of what can be referred to as Disaster Capitalism, that is the opening up of markets through natural or human-made (read war) disaster is made by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine (London: Penguin Books, 2007).
9 Allan Boesak, Johann Weussmann, Charles Amjad-Ali, Dreaming a Different World (The Globalization Project) p. 2.
10 Peter Denis, “Power and Subjectivity in Foucault” in New Left Review, No. 144, p. 76-77.
11 The term is borrowed from the title of the book Global Capitalism as Hydra. Cf. Indukuri John Mohan Razu, Global Capitalism as Hydra: A new look at Market, Money and MNC’s (New Delhi/Mumbai, ISPCK/BUILD, 2006).
12 And though Taylor uses it in the sense of material force we may also sense in his choice of words an attempt to capture something that is fluid and dynamic, which therefore needs an ethereal symbol to be able to speak of it, just like the biblical idea of the beast.
13 Mark Lewis Taylor, Religion, Politics and the Christian Right: Post 9/11 Powers and American Empire (Minneapolis Fortress Press, 2005), p. 96.
14 Allan Boesak, Johann Weussmann, Charles Amjad-Ali, Dreaming a Different World (The Globalization Project) pp. 75-78.