This article is the fourth part of a series adapted from the ideas in my thesis, The Trump Shall Resound: Christian Anarchism as Eschatological and Apocalyptic Witness; but it’s basically a total rewrite, because the paper is far too long and far too academic to post on this blog. If that kind of stuff floats your boat, though, feel free to check it out, and don’t forget to read the intro post to the series.
In this series, I am going to follow the general outline of my thesis, even though I am completely rewriting it. In the paper, I propose that there are three major “genes” in the DNA of Empire, and that by comparing this genome with the totally opposite one of the Kingdom of God, we can learn a lot about what makes the Kingdom vision of Jesus so special.
In the last post, I explained what I mean by the American “mythology.” Bill Cavanaugh says that all modern nations and Empires create “certain stories of nature and human nature, the origin of human conflict, and remedies for such conflict in the enactment of the state itself.” In other words, they explain the world and our place in it. These stories give birth to an integrated narrative - along with virtues, values, and practices - that has a “religious” character. They are religious in the sense that they “command our allegiance, vie for our passion, and aim to capture the heart with a particular vision of the good life. They don’t want to just give us entertainment or an education; they want to make us into certain kinds of people.” (James K. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom)
Mythologies always offer a picture of “salvation,” or what theologians call a soteriology. Now, it will be hard for us to wrap our heads around America offering us a form of salvation until we can understand the ways in which she has her own religion, which is why last week’s article came first. Once we can see this, though, then we will understand that there is no possible way the American mythology couldn’t offer a plan of salvation, because all religions have to.
The reason this is so important for Christians, and of course the reason it is central to Christian Anarchism (as I said last week, this point is the lynchpin of Christian Anarchist thought), is that the salvation narratives of Empire and of the Kingdom of God are totally incompatible because they are contradictory to each other. The only way to blend them is to lose much that lies at the heart of the gospel. For this reason, Ched Myers called Christ’s sacrificial, non-violent offering of his body on the cross the culmination of “a war of myths between Yahwism [Judean worship of the one God] and imperialism.” The State/Empire and the Kingdom of God tell two different narratives with two different visions of salvation, reinforced by their own preachers, prophets, and spiritual practices. Their conflict is a story as old as Scripture itself - Babel, Egypt, Assyria, ancient Babylon, Greece, Rome, and the “whore of Babylon” presented metaphorically as a symbol of Empire at the very end of the Bible.
What do I mean by salvation though? Every religion or ideology knows that the world is broken, and every one of them offers a set of solutions. Basically, the American religion offers two pictures of salvation that complement each other - one is on the national scale, and the other is in terms of individuals.
The American Salvation Story
Nationally speaking, America’s salvation narrative is one of triumphalism. Whether we say “America first,” or “make America great again,” or “America is already great,” we mean the same thing: we are (and must remain) the greatest superpower on Earth. We have been in first place so often and for so long that we can’t imagine losing the gold medal to anyone. Our economy and our military are the strongest and best, and they have huge influence over the rest of the world. Anything that threatens them is a threat to our “salvation.” Ironically, even though it’s a dirty word that most people would never claim, triumphalism isn’t too far from nationalism. Both of them are essential ingredients to any good, successful empire.
The bulk of the mythology from the previous article is about building up this vision and helping cultivate unwavering patriotism as much as possible. The continued survival of Empire depends on it, and it is why all good empires have had a strong mythological cult or narrative of one form or another throughout history.
On the individual side of things, salvation is our picture of the “good life,” and it is made possible by all the national dominance we just talked about. This basically means success and security - as our culture defines them. The vision of the American Dream has blended and morphed over the decades, but it remains at the heart of the vision of salvation for good Americans. In this vision, anyone (with enough hard work and personal sacrifice) can achieve success and security, which are defined first and foremost by financial measurements: getting a good job, a nice house and car and wardrobe, taking expensive vacations, and even eating out at nice restaurants - then working harder and sacrificing more to get promotions, buy a nicer house and car and wardrobe, take more expensive vacations, eat out more often or at even nicer restaurants, and of course save up for the most comfortable retirement you can afford.
There’s also the family side of the American Dream. There’s a shared vision of a “happy family” (that is, a successful and secure one) in our culture, but like the proverbial fish who doesn’t know what water is, we aren’t always able to see it and question it. Finding the perfect, stunning spouse and having the right number of perfect, beautiful children is a good start. Then, make sure you live in the right neighborhood, get a nice enough second car to carry them to all the after-school activities and sports teams (which is obviously expected), and make sure your job pays enough to bring them along on all the vacations and set them up for their own American Dream success story.
The war of myths
The contrast between this salvation narrative and the one proclaimed by Jesus is - or should be - so stark that it is blinding. Unfortunately, the American church (actually, much of the Western Church over the last 1500 years, but that’s a story for another time) has been sold on a cheap imitation version of the Kingdom of God that makes it a friend of the American Empire. Rather than achieving our stated goal, to be a “light unto the world” and a “city on a hill,” we have just imitated the Israelites by betraying our faithfulness to God and whoring ourselves out - not to Baal or Caesar, but to Uncle Sam. (I realize how strong and insulting that sounds, but it is the same language God used for his people when they compromised on his vision.)
The great irony, then, is that in trying to arrange for the Church to influence ‘the public,’ rather than simply be public, the public has reduced the Church to its own terms.Citizenship has displaced discipleship as the Church’s public key. ... The flows of power from Church to public are reversed, threatening to flood the Church itself. (Bill Cavanaugh, Theopolitical Imagination, page 86)
The Church in America allies herself with the war machine and preaches a gospel of patriotism; then she justifies and encourages American Dream thinking by dressing it up in terms of “Christian values” like hard work, family values, and of course wealth and financial success as a sign of God’s blessing. (Even churches that don’t preach this last one directly often make it obvious from their building design, in-service testimonies, and the beautiful suburban houses of their pastors, elders, and most important congregation members.)
Let me stress what I implied above: this is almost never intentionally unfaithful to the gospel of the Kingdom. I know so many wonderful people and churches just like this who love Jesus passionately and do their best to live faithfully to the Kingdom, and I love and respect them deeply. I just think we’ve been given a vision of that Kingdom that is flawed and incomplete.
Kingdom versus kingdoms - What's the difference?
The best way to compare the “national” vision of salvation in the Kingdom of God with the one offered by the Empire is to think about the philosophical nature of them. The Kingdom of God is “teleological” or has a “narrative arc,” that is to say it is moving towards an ultimate goal or conclusion. Theologians and Bible scholars are now talking more and more about the story of God, calling a people for his name in order to bring restoration to the broken world. When Jesus preached, “the kingdom of God is among you,” he was not saying that conclusion had arrived, but that a new chapter was breaking in. Since that day, his followers have lived in the tension of the “already and the not yet,” knowing that in one sense the Kingdom is here, and in the same breath saying that it is yet to come. God’s past faithfulness to this unfolding story, which we can trace with its ups and downs over thousands of years, is our only guarantee - which we call “hope” - of his continued faithfulness in bringing things to their ultimate goal. Our privilege is that we have been invited into the story of his people; and our calling is both to invite others in and to live in the tension, following the movement of his Holy Spirit slowly but surely ushering the Kingdom in.
In contrast, the narrative of triumphalism is entirely circular. It has a cyclical view of history rather than a teleological one, which is a complex way of saying the story isn’t “going anywhere” - except for staying in power and gaining even more domination. The mythology and the narrative do not exist for the sake of the world; their main purpose is to form and conform the citizens purely for the advancement of the Empire. Because holding onto power is only possible by more and more resources, competition, and violence, there is always an urgent need for “sacrifice” and “service” to the nation, which a good and compelling mythology can always generate. The key here is that rather than the tension of living in the unfolding story of the Kingdom of God, the circular and power-hungry narrative of Empire is fueled by anxiety. We don’t often recognize the anxiety because it is so well covered up, but we must remember that there is literally a world of difference between these two visions.
The “individual” salvation narratives are also totally different. I’ve already talked about how the value of power is presented completely different in the two worlds - that is, the coercive power of Empire versus the upside-down power of service in the Kingdom of God. But this is not the only difference in values. The life of discipleship, or the “good life,” in the Kingdom of God is about emptying yourself, offering your life up in service (no, not in the military sense), and giving away as much as possible of the nonsense wealth and possessions that the American Dream told you would save you. It is about loving your enemies, navigating the road of non-violence which unmasks the powers of evil and Empire, and following a savior whose cross wasn’t just his “special” way of saving you - it was the very thing he called you to take up in witness to your own salvation.
Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:38-39)
When Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, he didn’t write a Declaration of Independence and declare war on the oppressive Romans (who, by the way, were hundreds of times worse to their subjects than the British were). His first sermon was from the book of Isaiah, and it was his own "declaration":
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)
His few years of ministry defined what this proclamation looked like: a non-violent but deeply subversive popular movement that challenged the Empire at its core, because it chose not to fight it on its own terms. When brought before Pilate in trial, he said,
My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place. (John 18:36)
He didn’t give us a Constitution full of lists of rights and privileges and legislative procedures. He gave us the Sermon on the Mount, which lays out the entire foundation for the life of discipleship discussed above.
And finally, he didn’t set himself up on a throne in Caesar’s palace or a swivel chair in the Oval Office. His crown was of thorns thrust into his head by imperial officers. His royal procession was carrying an instrument of torture down a crowded street. His oath-taking involved not a hand on a Bible, but a nail through his wrist. His official coronation ceremony was hanging bloody and naked; and the attendants and witnesses were weeping women, hardened soldiers of the occupying forces, and circling birds of carrion waiting to feast on his dead flesh. And part of his inaugural prayer was, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)
May we have eyes open enough to see the wide gap between these two stories, mouths gracious enough to speak bold and hopeful truth, hearts strong enough to pick a side and stand firm, minds sharp enough to hold onto the tension, and shoulders broad enough to carry our own crosses on our roads to our own Gethsemanes. Kyrie Eleison. Lord have mercy.
Check out the rest of the series:
Part 1: Why I am a Christian Anarchist
Part 3: The American mythology
Part 4: A war of myths
Part 5: Built on violence