By Diane Reynolds
How can Christianity challenge Empire? Joerg Rieger, professor of theology at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, author of several books, including Christ and Empire and No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics and the Future, asked that question when he came to ESR last week as the seminary’s Wilson lecturer.
Empire concentrates power and wealth in the hands of a few, Rieger said, and works to convince the people under its rule that it represents the only viable way to live. Military might supports and enforces this empire vision. The U.S. is an empire today, Reiger said, as the Roman Empire once was. In both cases, Christianity threatens to undermine Empire’s totalizing tendencies.
Empire has long tried to domesticate and dilute the Christian message, but has never been able to do so entirely. The alternative Christian vision flourishes at the bottom of society and works its way up. It can be found not in Empire promises of future benefits, but in the here and now—where the sick are healed, the blind see and the lame walk. It offers a shalom vision that challenges a top-down, all-powerful Empire.
Much of what Rieger said accords with Quakerism, which has traditionally spoken truth to power and aligned itself with the marginalized. Quakerism roots itself in an understanding of Christianity that opposes Empire’s hierarchy, oppression and material pomp.
Rieger explicitly linked Christianity to economics and politics. As I listened to him, I found myself agreeing - and wishing an alternative voice would debate him. Where do progressive notions go awry? Where can they be critiqued? In an era, unprecedented in my lifetime, in which the social contract appears to be in process of being fundamentally renegotiated, where do we find new ideas? When Reiger, for instance, was asked what could be done about “permanently disappeared” jobs, his answer was a government jobs program. However, in this political climate, the government doesn’t seem inclined to create jobs. What do we do instead of looking to the government?
In a blog on the high tuition of a Quaker school in New York City, Bob Doto described a punk mentality, where, instead of fighting with the system, we find spaces where we can live with integrity. I’d love ESR to invite Rieger back, along with a punk theologian, and a conservative theologian, to debate each other and spark some perhaps heated conversation. After all, as the early Quakers knew, Jesus came not to support the status quo, be it progressive or conservative, but to light the world on fire.
Master of Divinity program. She maintains a personal blog, Emerging Quaker.