Monday, January 29, 2007

Empire and the Theology of Despair

In my interview with Marcus Borg, we talked about the conditions under which the Great Religions might become sources of great evil and justifications for inflicting misery, rather than sources of truth, beauty, and goodness. Dr. Borg argues that one of the key moments in the process toward becoming evil is when religion gets intertwined with "empire" or, in other words, with state power. For instance, when Christianity became the official religion under the Emperor Constantine, then state actions (such as using military force) could be justified with appeal to theology. For Dr. Borg, up until this point, Christianity had a very anti-imperialist message in the teachings of Jesus.

In his work with Dominic Crossen, The Last Week, Dr. Borg examines this view of Jesus as a revolutionary, persecuted for his teaching against Roman authority.

Reporter Chris Hedges adds a new twist. In this article, he argues that evangelical Christianity has become a theology of despair that is being used to underpin the gutting of the social welfare state in the United States and to promote a vision of "end times" for our foreign policy.

Is there a way of appreciating the sacred that does not become corrupt in its relationship with "empire"?

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At 5:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


That Hedges article is downright scary, but it does a good job offering one explanation for the collusion between a certain type of religiosity and raw capitalism.

I have to say I don't understand your closing question. I think I know where you're going, but some clarification would be appreciated.


At 6:26 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

I guess I want to leave it open to others who have more "religious authority" to speak, but I wonder whether its possible to have spirituality that can translate into political action and is about building community and promoting justice rather than simply justifying power and empire. What does that look like? I know people talk about figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr, but the question for me is: What exactly did he do? How was he able to take religion to talk about poltiical justice?

At 11:06 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aha. That does clarify the question a bit.

Not being a religious authority myself, I'll draw a comparison between spirituality and philosophy: Is it possible to have a philosophy that supports community and justice rather than power and empire? I hope so! I guess my point is one's spirituality can be as diverse in its values as a philosophy (perhaps 'ethical framework' is a better term).


At 11:08 AM , Blogger zl441x said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11:47 AM , Anonymous Parisa said...

There are examples all through history of religious communities that kept to their core values rather than be corrupted by empire -- some would argue that the early communities that followed Jesus were just such an effort (see Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and others). The Catholic Worker movement in the US, and for that matter many communities of women religious, which do not fall under direct papal authority, have had decades, if not centuries, of great religious work done with integrity. Same with Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi, Jewish, and Protestant Christian communities around the globe.

Thing is, people doing good, faith-based work aren't as interesting to write about because they're just busy doing the work. When they run into trouble with the dominant authorities, they either find subversive ways to continue 'underground' or they change tactics for a while until the attention subsides. Sometimes the work is halted because they can't see how to do it any longer, or their own larger religious hierarchy shuts them down. But I've never seen people who are truly called to do such work dissuaded for long.

At 1:17 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Catholic Worker is a very good example, indeed! I think its also important to remember that the idea of "social justice" is originally tied to Catholic theology.


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