Theological Reflection on “Mission in the Context of Empire”

I have been selected to represent the PCANZ in the Council for World Mission programme “Face the Facts”, 2014 to be held in the Philippines. More information about the programme can be found here: Face the Facts 2014: Call for applications. To get a sense of what this is about, see the Face the Facts 2013 video.

Below is my application essay for the programme. It’s a reflection on the CWM document “Mission in the Context of Empire“.

Application Essay: Theological Reflection on “Mission in the Context of Empire”

Christians and the world they live in are groaning under the legacy of empires, old and new (Romans 8:22-23). In naming our mission context as ‘Empire’ the Trustees of CWM took a bold step, especially since they acknowledge that the pervasive and hegemonic nature of contemporary Empire makes it hard to see for some, especially Western Christians and other elites who are the direct or indirect beneficiaries of this Empire.

What is this Empire? Who does it benefit? Contemporary ‘Empire’ does not easily attract an adjective, such as ‘Roman’ or ‘American’ Empire. Indeed, “Mission in the Context of Empire” (MCE) does not seek to blame the West or even global capitalism, perhaps thinking that such things are too narrow targets for understanding Empire in today’s world. But perhaps not. Western ways of thinking since the Enlightenment have been rightly blamed for the rise of concentrated political and economic power that subjected the world to European empires from the 15th century onward.

Capitalism, which gets only one mention in MCE, would seem to bear much blame today for the devastating consequences of the economic domination of both political and environmental spheres. In the context of contemporary Empire, it may be time for the churches to declare that the theological justification of capitalism is a heresy. As the Accra Confession states, “the integrity of our faith is at stake if we remain silent or refuse to act in the face of the current system of neoliberal economic globalization.” Remaining silent about capitalism’s negative effects risks giving it tacit support. Actively supporting capitalism theologically could be named a heresy for several reasons:

  • It has a false anthropology distorting the image of God, positing humans as driven by competition rather than cooperation
  • It has led to inequalities which have divided the Body of Christ
  • It has plundered the Earth and seen creation a storehouse of exploitable resources, rather than seeing it as a source of God-given life.
  • It turns human work into the pursuit of profit, rather the glorification of God
  • It reduces human life to work, production, and consumption

Too often Empire has sought and encouraged theological support for those socio-political systems that defeated the previous economic and political systems and have become the newest status quo. An example was theology that served western democracy and liberalism in opposition to the ideologies of Fascism and State Socialism in the early to mid-twentieth century. Western theologies that promote or defend these theologies as universalistic have become essentially imperialistic in supporting democratic and liberalism capitalism around the globe.

The churches’ legitimate cold-war concern that the individual would be absorbed into the mass communist state has now been replaced with the promotion of the idea that the individual can find self-expression through consumption of capitalist commodities. But for many working class people capitalism has sacrificed workers, their families, and their environment to the ideology of profits, growth, and other capitalist idols. The individual is not so much at risk from absorption into a mass society, but is at risk from starvation itself. In other words, we have preserved the prospect of liberal individuality at the expense of the individual. This is witnessed to in the stories about individuals striving for life under oppressive situations shored up by imperial ideas. MCE, in sharing such stories places the individual before the Empire itself. Like the famous image of the Chinese shopper facing a row of tanks, the individual faces the crushing might of empire sometimes alone, but hopefully with the support of the church.

But in addition to exposing the might of contemporary Empire, what else does the church offer against it? Before this can be understood, the church must first of all be attentive to its history of its complicity in Empire. When the early church become the established church it established an imperial theology, which now must be challenged and uprooted. In this ongoing task the Reformed Church must repent of its involvement in empire and also the persecution of other Christians, such as the Anabaptists, who rejected this imperial theology. This act of kenosis, or self-emptying of its power, by the church is one helpful way of understanding the shift to post-imperial theology.

Christians may be well aware of the worst of the church, but can we also appreciate that at its best, the church and the Christian story offers a counterpoint to contemporary Empire? MCE shows us what this best can be. One of the things the church offers in resistance to Empire is demonstrating through its life together a new vision of life in all its fullness. Rather than the concentration of power, the church believes in the distribution of power. Rather than a life devoted to economic activity (being both a producer and consumer of the products of empire), the church offers life in all its fullness. It is an irony of Empire that it promises fullness to its people in times to come, but only once economic growth trickles down to the poor. This remains a false and deceiving hope.

Yet is the good news shared by the church more than an after life free of slavery to earthly power? A gospel message that does not incarnate itself here and now will struggle to be attractive to the masses toiling in service to the powers of Empire. Nor is it faithful to a gospel that speaks of the healing and feeding acts of Jesus Christ. The Gospel speaks of traditions of new ways of living that offer life in all its fullness in this world.

Mission, as the sharing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is a task all CWM partners share as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). Another biblical image that might also be helpful in understanding CWM’s mission to Empire is the church as the family of God. All Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ. Like a family we are united, though divided. Just as families are sometimes split up by the need to become migrant workers yet remain family members, the church too is divided across borders and yet understands that it remains one united family.

For the Western church the understanding of mission in MCE means coming to terms with the post-Christendom world, where Christianity is not dominant and Christian cultural assumptions can no longer be assumed to be held by all the inhabitants of the nation. This requires a shift in thinking away from the notion that Christians can, or should, try to shape a Christian society through law or the state, and not export Western Christianity through the organs of the state and empire into other nations. It can be helped in this task of forming new ways of thinking through its emerging cultural status by learning from partner churches in lands where Christianity has always been a minority.

The genius of CWM and MCE is that just as we must learn about Empire from each other and the pain this causes, we can also learn about resistance from each other. What forms of Christian life together that resist Empire can we share with each other that are faithful to the cries of our brothers and sisters in Christ? In exploring these questions together CWM partner churches can begin to model new ways of doing mission together in the context of Empire.