by Sylvia Keesmaat
Our friends over at culture is not optional (*cino), Rob and Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma are teaching a course this semester at Calvin College on pop culture and empire. They sent a couple of questions to Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat that they were struggling with.
We thought that Sylvia’s response was insightful, so we present here Kirstin’s questions and Sylvia’s reply.
Kirstin: Would you talk about a capital-e Empire as the archetype to the anti-Kingdom? (Empire=evil, Kingdom=good, both manifesting themselves in human culture to varying degrees) Alternately, is there no Empire, but only small-e empire–a collection of manifestations throughout time and place (including within the human heart) that need to be sorted out for what’s good and evil?
Essentially, what is the relationship between EMPIRE and empire? We’re debating about whether to add Howard Zinn’s graphic novel A People’s History of American Empire to our reading list. We want to name manifestations of Empire specifically and clearly, but don’t want to limit our students’ understanding of Empire either, because it’s bigger than this time and place.
We’re going back and forth on how to balance empire as a socio-political reality and Empire as a theological concept. Any help you have time to offer would be appreciated.
Sylvia: I tend to think of the “does empire equal evil (ie. EMPIRE)” issue in this way. The deeper problem goes beyond empire, it goes much deeper down. When I look at the biblical story, it is clear that disobedience and sin begin in the single act of a woman and a man grasping something that was not theirs to grasp. And then that leads to the violence within their family (Cain and Abel) and then to the larger manifestation of societal disobedience (Babel). That larger societal disobedience is what we call empire.
Empire is the largest manifestation of the evil that begins its sojourn in the human heart and grows up through all the relationships that constitute society. The reason that Brian and I and many others focus so much on this particular manifestation of evil is that biblical faith is predominantly formed “in the shadow of empire” to use Walter Brueggemann’s insightful phrase.
The biblical story seems to be constantly grappling with empire precisely because the focus isn’t just on personal sin but on societal sin and what it looks like. So, I guess I wouldn’t say that there is EMPIRE. There is, rather, EVIL, which manifests itself in various empires throughout history.
Another way to say this is that when EVIL takes socio-historical form, it is always imperial in character. In terms of Empire as a theological concept and as a socio-political reality the only clues that we have as to how to live faithfully under empire is to look at how the people of God have engaged faithfully or not in their particular historical situations. And, I think, that there is no non-contextual way to talk about empire, even theologically. (Does that double negative work?).
That is to say, we have to talk specifically about the imperial context in which we find ourselves in order to discern what is faithful living in the heart of empire. But we also have to be careful to show how the lines are larger than this moment in time. So, for instance, when I’m speaking in your country people are eager to label the United States as the evil empire (maybe I’m not talking to your average Christian American).
In Canada, believe it or not, people are more reluctant to make such a claim, perhaps because they don’t want to seem anti-American. And I can understand the reluctance because global capitalism is larger than the United States. And countries like Canada, while acting self-righteous for not going into the war in Iraq, still maintain higher levels of energy consumption per capita than our neighbours to the south.
We may not talk of ourselves as empire, but we are a huge part of the imperial dynamic in the world – we like our oil, we really do!
So I prefer to talk about global capitalism, or, more pointedly, the global capitalist military industrial complex as our imperial reality (but only rarely since that particular phrase alienates more people than it speaks to). And, of course, as far as empires go, the United States is a toddler on the scene. The Netherlands, Britain, Spain all played the imperial game long before the U.S. In fact, the roots of racism, slavery and segregation in the U.S. can be traced to the empires of these countries. Complicity in empire runs in my blood.
Anyway, those are my ramblings. I hope they are of some help to you and Rob and you teach this course. Have fun teaching; we’ll keep you in our prayers