The Empire Strikes Out

Theologians Pit Christ Against Imperial America

by Mark Tooley

Likening the United States under George W. Bush to the Roman Empire is becoming increasingly popular in some theological circles. The combination of seminary faculty against Bush and recent US military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere has brought together pacifist absolutists with just-war theorists who fret over US foreign policy. For example:

Anxious About Empire (Brazos Press, 2004), edited by Wesley Avram of Yale Divinity School, enlisted nearly a dozen theologians and ethicists to express their angst over an ostensibly hegemonic US foreign policy (with some notable dissenters, such as Jean Bethke Elshtain).
• Union Seminary in New York City hosted a two-day conference on this theme last fall, before the presidential elections. Speakers included Jesus Seminar stalwarts Hal Taussig and John Dominic Crossan.
• In a February 8 column for The Christian Century, one of its editors, John Dart, wrote about the trend, describing the preference of some biblical scholars to emphasize a Jesus opposed to empire, not only the Rome of his day but by extension the new American empire of our own day.

A Violent World

Perhaps the most succinct summation of this school of thought among Christian theologians and ethicists is a statement organized late during the 2004 presidential election campaign, and still being circulated and discussed, called Confessing Christ in a World of Violence ( CCWV). It was issued for a time “when its [the church’s] confession is co-opted by militarism and nationalism.”

Carried prominently on the website of Jim Wallis’s magazine Sojourners, it attracted over 200 signers (over 300 are now listed on the website), some of them predictably politically active on the left, including Wallis himself. But other signers are not known for making political statements, and some are best known for their vigorous defense of traditional Christian teachings.

There were politically liberal Evangelicals, like Tony Campolo. There were traditional pacifists, like Myron Augsburger. There was the eclectic contrarian Stanley Hauerwas and his co-author William Willimon. There were left-leaning Roman Catholics, such as Sister Joan Chittister and First Things contributor Gabriel Fackre. There was liberal Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann and popular Eerdmans writer Fleming Rutledge.

There were Lutheran homosexual activist Barbara Lundblad of Union Seminary and popular “emerging church” writer Brian McLaren. There were Christian Marxist Cornel West of Princeton and Jesus Seminar critic and biblical scholar Ben Witherington. There were feminist theologian Sallie McFague and Evangelical theologians Roger Olson of Baylor and Colin Brown of Fuller.

Fuller Theological Seminary provided twenty signers and Duke Divinity School fifteen (with the university’s past and present chaplains adding two more). Luther Seminary and Princeton Theological Seminary both contributed twelve, and Baylor University nine. Mennonite institutions offered twenty-nine. Even Wheaton and Gordon Colleges contributed four each.

A chief spokesman and organizer for CCWV was Richard Hays of Duke Divinity School, who is pacifist, theologically orthodox, and a widely respected New Testament scholar who has written extensively and supportively of church teachings against homosexual practice and abortion. Also in the lead with him and Wallis have been Glenn Stassen of Fuller Theological Seminary, famous for his claims that abortion increased under Bush because of his policies, George Hunsinger of Princeton Theological Seminary, and Richard Pierard of Gordon College.

According to Hays, who responded to questions from this writer, the statement was not aimed at a secular audience but at “followers of Christ,” to “seek greater theological clarity about their political language and their attitudes towards war.” He complained that the current administration “seems to invoke Christian language only in self-justifying ways, never self-critically.” And he stressed that CCWV “does not assume or argue for a radical pacifist stance.”

The statement arose out of concern that “simplistic” assumptions about America as a “uniquely righteous empire” were widespread among Evangelical Christians during the 2004 election and remain so today, Hays said. Its writers were distressed that American Evangelicals were idolatrously “placing our particular nation-state in a messianic role for which there is no scriptural warrant.”

Sinister Quotes

The 868-word statement itself asks if Christian “realism,” a reference to Christian just-war teaching as understood by Reinhold Niebuhr, means “resigning ourselves to an endless future of ‘pre-emptive wars’? Does it mean turning a blind eye to torture and massive civilian casualties? Does it mean acting out of fear and resentment rather than intelligence and restraint?”

Offering a series of claims in the passive voice, it declared that

• A “theology of war,” emanating from the highest circles of American government, is seeping into our churches as well.
• The language of “righteous empire” is employed with growing frequency.
• The roles of God, church, and nation are confused by talk of an American “mission” and “divine appointment” to “rid the world of evil.”

Though President Bush and his administration’s policies are clearly the statement’s subject, he is never mentioned in it. Many of the sinister quotations CCWV condemns (without saying who is being quoted) are not taken from the mouths and pens of Bush and his supporters, but are characterizations of Bush’s worldview by his critics.

All of these dangers—posed, though the statement does not say so outright, by the Bush administration—require a “new confessing of Christ.” Christians have a “strong presumption against war,” nations cannot be divided between the evil ones and the good ones, “enemy-love” is central to the gospel, and national humility is a virtue.

“Our allegiance to Christ takes priority over national identity,” CCWV declared, as though this were a controversial notion among Christians, and it insisted that Jesus knows no national boundaries, which is true, but in context implies that nation-states play no providential role and that patriotism is more a sin than a virtue. Hays, stressing that he spoke only for himself, said he would be “hard-put to think of any biblical basis for allegiance to a nation-state as a specifically Christian virtue.”

CCWV places great hope on “international” processes. “A policy that rejects the wisdom of international consultation should not be baptized by religiosity,” it declares near the beginning, and “We are committed to international cooperation rather than unilateral policies” near the end. While warning that “no nation-state may usurp the place of God” it did not likewise insist that neither the United Nations nor any other international force can usurp the heavenly throne.

That reliance on international groups might be just as idolatrous as nation-state patriotism, it did not admit. Nor did it explain why international consensus must be a prerequisite for virtuous action in a world that is, according to Christian teaching, perpetually fallen and in rebellion against the divine order—and in which those the United States would consult and cooperate with have their own self-interests, which may include collaboration with oppressive regimes.

Bush’s False Teachings

CCWV targeted several “false teachings.” It is amusing, and perhaps even reassuring, that some of its heterodox signers, who do not object to goddess worship or the promotion of homosexuality, do acknowledge the concept of “false teaching.”

For example, Bush is criticized (though not by name) for supposedly equating the United States with the Savior. The statement cited the President’s remarks at Ellis Island on the first anniversary of 9/11, in which he said:

Ours is the cause of human dignity; freedom guided by conscience and guarded by peace. This ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. That hope drew millions to this harbor. That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness will not overcome it.

“These words, used in Scripture, apply only to Christ. No political or religious leader has the right to twist them in the service of war,” CCWV complained. But Bush was not doing this, but using the gospel’s language to describe American ideals. He borrowed scriptural language to assert that American ideals of dignity and freedom, which are in fact deeply rooted in American Christianity, will never be extinguished.

CCWV also rejects “the false teaching that America is a ‘Christian nation,’ representing only virtue, while its adversaries are nothing but vicious. We reject the belief that America has nothing to repent of, even as we reject that it represents most of the world’s evil.”

One wonders which American Christians believe their country is sinless. After all, two of President Bush’s most prominent “Religious Right” supporters famously declared that the 9/11 attacks were signs of God’s wrathful judgment upon the nation.

CCWV was also very concerned about America’s “demonization” of “perceived enemies.” One wonders if the signers acknowledge the possibility that America has enemies, or that any of those enemies may be demonic in their behavior. Is criticism of the Iranian theocracy, or of North Korea’s Stalinist regime, an act of “demonization”? Or is it simply describing the reality of those regimes? What would they themselves have said of South Africa’s white regime or Chile under Pinochet?

Somewhat ironically, given the liberal theology of some of the signers, CCWV insisted in its conclusion on the lordship of Jesus Christ over all things, which, in other contexts, probably would distress these theologians as imperialist and patriarchal.

“We believe that acknowledging these truths is indispensable for followers of Christ,” declared the signers in the last paragraph, seeming to claim for their statement some aura of infallibility. Hays granted that all political proposals, even if their intent may be specifically Christian, entail “certain prudential judgments” that are fallible. But this humility is missing from CCWV.

CCWV wants Bush and his supporters to stop using scriptural language on behalf of his foreign policy, while reserving that language for its signers as they oppose his policies. The expectation seems unfair, as are, arguably, the implications of the statement.

“Confessing Christ in a World of Violence” can be found at

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