Faith seeking understanding #039: The American Empire and the Kingdom of God

Faith seeking understanding, my personal journey towards a deeper knowledge of and intimacy with God, the cosmos, humanity and myself through thoughts, words and (occasionally) images, is a series of [hopefully] daily reflections I’m writing with the purpose of publishing something on a regular basis for others to read, either here, at joncarllewis.com or among my writings at Medium.com.

Photo by Moira Dillon on Unsplash.

I am looking forward to reading Postcards from Babylon: The Church in American Exile by Brian Zahnd. I listened to him being interviewed by Luke Norsworthy on the Newsworthy by Norsworthy podcast and I enjoyed hearing his take on Christendom, the Christian church and its role vis-à-vis the American empire.

In the interview, Zahnd offered the notion that America is four different things: a nation, an empire, a religion and a culture. Zahnd maintains that, although God loves America as a nation, God is distinctly anti-empire. The whole enterprise of setting up an empire runs counter to the holy project God has in mind for all the nations, a realm of God on earth as it is in heaven. The whole point of the Jesus project was to announce an alternative to empire, an alternative to the “necessary” violence that keeps an empire feared and in power, an alternative to the suffering inflicted on the nations by one particular nation which sees itself as more entitled than others to a larger share of the world’s resources.

Although Zahnd was quick to suggest that, as a culture, there was much about America that is good and noble and admirable, he declares America as a religion is nothing less than idolatry. Healthy pride is one thing, but the worship of an empire and its leaders—a worship an empire and its leaders expect—runs counter to the place Christ should have as our primary allegiance and person of worship. Christ came to show us a radically different way than the ways of violence and greed and all of the other things that go along with the excesses of empire.

Zahnd presented as an example Germany of the time when Luther’s “two nation” notion had taken hold in the uncritical support of the German government by the church. Zahnd suggested that empires require the sacrifice of young men who are more or less willing to die for the promises of empire they will never see. The problem with finding young men to die for empire was less of a problem than the parents of those young men who would return from their sacrifice in flag-draped coffins. The role of the Church, allied with the Empire, was to convince those parents of the lie that the sacrifice of their children and the slaughter of nameless, faceless opponents was somehow a holy endeavor.

Closer to home, Zahnd noted how the mainline, Protestant denominations fulfilled this role as America became an Empire—until the Vietnam War, when the whole idea of a just war came into question. Into this breach, Zahnd suggests, stepped the Evangelical church, a movement only too glad to accept its status as chaplain to Empire and justifier of Empire’s ends—the means be damned.

Despite this critique of the Christian right, Zahnd, nevertheless, doesn’t count himself as part of the Christian left. His sentiment was that if “Christian” became the adjective that described “the right” or “the left” then it was “the right” or “the left” which received the focus, not the “Christian” part. I am reminded of something Richard Rohr says about the Gospel: that if it is truly the Gospel, it will piss off both conservatives and liberals. I am inclined to agree, although my sympathies tend towards the progressive end of the spectrum.

Nevertheless, this concept of the Gospel as belonging to no faction but its own, no army but Christ’s, is intriguing to me. I find it very challenging and worth considering: does the religion I follow act as chaplain to Empire? Does it act as chaplain to the forces that would destroy Empire by human means? Or does the religion I follow focus on Christ alone and his radically un-co-optable way of love?

I pray that the latter is the only banner I rally around. The Empire and its adherents may not like that very much—and it may not please the enemies of Empire any more than it does the Empire—but I see no other place for me to stand as someone who hopes to be identified with Christ and his middle way of love and reconciliation.

Thank you for your time and attention.
I’d love to know your thoughts on what you’ve read.
Please comment, below, or email me at joncarllewis@gmail.com.
May God richly bless you on your journey.

Faith seeking understanding #039: The American Empire and the Kingdom of God

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