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« The Dangerous Support by Some Churches of Empire and U.S. Bullying Instead of Following Jesus »

Wes Howard-BrookWatching people do harm and deliver hate in the name of their faith can be incredibly painful! It hurts so many to see people standing in their faith while justifying the bullying of the current administration in Washington, D.C. I feel great pain too when I read U.S. history—churches and people of faith have been leaders in U.S. domination. This blog explains why this abuse happens. It also explains why it’s NOT the way of Jesus.

Jesus is universally admired as a spiritual, political, and economic genius. He rejects so much of what church people embrace. He lived irrevocably committed to the way of truth however it sorted out life, the way of love with the guts to approach “enemies,” and the way of interdependent relationships with all beings.

Today we also see some church leaders standing strong in resistance—standing up to white supremacy, standing with Native Americans, standing with “undocumented” immigrants, urging the removal of racists symbols such as monuments to the Confederate rebellion to the United States.

But alas! We also see too many who identify as Christians defending the bullying of U.S. empire now embodied in Trump and so many others in his administration and party. They give their blessing despite the moral barrenness in those they bless.

Wes Howard-Brook has written two books that explain why this incomprehensible paradox continues to mess with us and our societies. (See the end of this blog for the two books.) He illumines the paradox by showing the irreconcileable difference between the “religion of empire” and the “religion of creation.” (These two religions parallel what this website calls MultiEarth and OneEarth worldviews.) Both “religions” are in the Bible as they are in the world today. But Jesus rejects the religion of empire and lives by the religion of creation. 

Howard-Brook explains clearly that when the teachings of Jesus are not heard as the struggle between these two religions, then “followers of Jesus” make many abuses of sacred texts. When all the Bible is treated as one story or divided incorrectly as the Old Testament and New Testament “religions,” abuses proliferate:

  • speaking of “God and country” as equal in importance
  • speaking as if white supremacy has any justification in the way of Jesus
  • insisting it’s okay for men to control bodies of women and their value in society or the workplace 
  • raising up one religion while putting others down
  • insisting sacred texts are only about our interior lives
  • justifying nationalism, i.e., the worship of nation-states that elevate one over others 
  • justifying war and systemic violence expressed in unjust debt, labor (slavery), economic wealth

But, truth is, only the “religion of empire” (MultiEarth) in the Bible and other sacred texts justifies such attitudes and behaviors. Throughout sacred texts the “religion of creation” (OneEarth) denounces them. If we can listen to the religious leaders and people identifying with various faiths in terms of these two religions, not just the one they claim, we will make sense of what is going on.

What follows is an interview with Wes. Briefly, Wes grew up in a secular Jewish home. He became an attorney, serving the federal and Washington state governments. He was counsel to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee from 1981-83. Then he shifted toward biblical study, theology, and spiritual practice. Today, he and his wife, Sue Ferguson Johnson, collaborate in the ministry, Abide in Me, which seeks transformation in individuals and communities by bringing together the mystical and the prophetic, the inner and outer journeys with God. Wes also teaches theology and scripture at Seattle University and at churches and gatherings around the Pacific Northwest and the U.S. Following the interview below are a couple of links to other longer interviews where you can find much more of Wes’ lifestory.  

Lee: You’ve written a book, “Come Out My People”: God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, on how the Bible is a composition of two religions (worldviews) in tension, the religion of empire and the religion of creation. How did you come to this understanding?
Wes: The initial connecting point was the image of “the great city,” as found both in Genesis (chapter 10) and Revelation (chapters 11, 17, 18). In each case, “the great city” expresses a human social order that stands in opposition to YHWH. Essentially, it is what we call “empire.” 
At the same time, I knew that the long monarchy narrative seems to embrace social and economic hierarchy in the name of YHWH. Once one becomes aware of these opposing viewpoints, one can quickly see that there is a pattern of two, opposing ways of being that each claim YHWH’s authority and will to justify it. This led me to reconsider the relationships among the biblical texts as two different “religions”: the religion of empire and the religion of creation. Then and now, these two opposing perspectives argue about where God’s authority lies. 
Lee: How widely is this understanding embraced among academics? in congregations? among faith-based activists?
Wes: There is a widespread understanding among scholars that there is a conflict among biblical texts. As far as I’m aware, I’m the only one (besides you!) who has conceived of it this way. The “wrong” way is to see “the Old Testament” as equivalent to “Judaism” and “the New Testament” as equivalent to “Christianity.” This idea is wrong at every level, a theme I explored in the follow-up book as well, Empire Baptized, engaging the post-biblical centuries up to the time of Augustine.
In churches? I expect that this idea is rather threatening to churches that are committed to the idea that all of the Bible is “inspired.” That single notion, based as it is on a single verse in a letter that is almost certainly a forgery (2 Timothy 3.16), has caused more confusion and damage than probably any other single verse in the Bible. 
Some activists groups, such as the Catholic Worker Movement, have embraced this conception. It shouldn’t be too surprising that people who are battling for justice on the ground “get it” in a way that academics and church workers might not so easily, for very different reasons. 
Lee: You’ve also written a sequel, Empire Baptized, with the provocative subtitle, How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected. What feedback are you getting about how it is most helpful to people?
Wes: Honestly, there hasn’t been a lot of public feedback on Empire Baptized. One scholar criticized it for being “too hard” on the church writers. I’m not sure what that means, though. If one quotes them directly and shows how their ideas are the opposite of those attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, is that being “hard” on them? Or is it revealing the uncomfortable truth that “Christianity” was intellectually founded on Platonically-oriented, anti-Jewish men whose commitments to their philosophical presuppositions were stronger than their commitment to hear Jesus on his own terms? 
Lee: How do the two frames you use, religion of empire and religion of creation, help us understand what’s happening in the world today?
Wes: My undergrad students are required to do a project on how the two religions play out across history or in the world today. They find it very helpful for understanding the conflicts among “Christians” over things like war, climate change, immigration and so forth. I wish the mainstream media could hear this, as they so often reduce their engagement with “Christianity” to the most extreme, anti-intellectual and narrow-minded forms.
Lee: In Come Out My People, you often refer to the practice(s) of jubilee in the Bible as well as some other writings of that time. How does jubilee fit with the two different religions—the religion of empire and the religion of creation?
Wes: Yes, jubilee is at the very heart of the “religion of creation,” not just in the literal, fifty year release proscribed in Leviticus, but as a way of seeking to live in harmony with God, people and all of creation. Luke makes it a central theme, of course, not just in Jesus’ proclamation in Nazareth of the fulfillment of the jubilee promise in Isaiah 61, but throughout his ministry. We like to speak of the “four Ds of jubilee”: release from debt, demons, disease and death. These are all forms of the “new start” that jubilee envisions. Jubilee strikes at the very heart of the “religion of empire,” which is almost always about maintaining various kinds of “debts.” Recall how we used to speak of a prison sentence as “paying your debt to society.” And yet, convicted felons remain in debt to society forever, losing the right to vote and other opportunities available to others. Empire doesn’t “release” people from their debts very easily. We see this theme expressed today also in pop culture contexts, such as the film “Fight Club” and the TV show, “Mr. Robot,” both of which features heroes who seek to take down the corporations who hold massive debt. But we also see it in the small, daily practice of forgiveness/letting go in our everyday relationships. We might never see a massive, society-wide forgiveness of debts, but we who claim the Way of Jesus can and must model such practices of release as they arise. 
I highly recommend reading and listening to two other interviews with Wes. For a much longer written interview with Wes on these subjects see https://poserorprophet.wordpress.com/2016/12/02/creation-to-empire-and-back-again-an-interview-with-wes-howard-brook/.
Or listen to John Cleary interview Wes on ABC Local Sunday Nights at http://www.abc.net.au/sundaynights/stories/s3812783.htm
Wes’ books:
  • “Come Out My People”: God’s Call Out of Empire In the Bible and Beyond (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2010)
  • Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected (2nd to 5th centuries) (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2016)


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Reader Comments (2)

A little of the devil's advocacy here; is not our bankruptcy law somewhat loosely based upon the biblical Jubilee?

But I am largely onboard with you on your, "Tale of the Two Cities."
August 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Rush Garrett
Thanks Lee for steering me here- I have much more listening & reading to do!
September 6, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjeri shaw

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