God in an Age of Empire

Featured in our Winter Sale, God, Neighbour, Empire by Walter Brueggeman (with a foreword by Jane Williams) demonstrates how the Old Testament offers an alternative to the imperial narrative that dominates ordinary imagination both in ancient times and in the present. Here is an extract from the introduction.

Biblical texts always emerged in a context. We often cannot determine with any precision the exact historical moment or circumstance of such emergence of any particular text. But we can determine, very often, the macro-context of political economy for such emergence, for the patterns of political economy in the ancient world are recurring.

Specifically, much of the Old Testament text emerged in contexts of empire amid great concentrations of wealth and power. Thus, we are able to trace a sequence of empires and their impact in the Old Testament from the paradigmatic empire of Pharaoh in Egypt to the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires, to the global power of Alexander the Great and his Hellenistic successors, and finally to the Roman Empire. This sequence, in large sweep, was interrupted in ancient Israel only by the modest empire of Solomon (the Davidic dynasty) that presided over the Jerusalem establishment for a long period of time.

Given some particularities, it is fair to say that ancient empires, like contemporary empires, can be identified by recurring markers. For our purposes we may identify three characteristic marks of imperial policy and practice.

First, empires existed to extract wealth in order to transfer wealth from the vulnerable to the powerful. (Solomon’s practice of extraction featured an imposing taxation system. See 1 Kings 4:7-19 and the revolt against his taxation system in 1 Kings 12:1-19.)

Second, empires pursued a policy of commoditization in which everything and everyone was reduced to a dispensable commodity that could be bought and sold and traded and possessed and consumed. (Solomon’s practice of commoditization is evident in his policy of forced labor [1 Kgs 5:13; 9:20-22] and his expansive trade policies that produced seemingly limitless wealth for his entourage [1 Kgs 10:13-25].)

Third, empires that practiced extraction and commoditization were fully prepared to undertake violence on whatever scale was required for the success of extraction and commoditization. (For Solomon, the combination of taxation, slavery, and confiscatory trade constituted a state policy in readiness for violence.) All such policies and practices could be justified as they secured the expansive wealth of the empire.

These policies and practices, moreover, were regularly legitimated by liturgical enactment of myths that allied the power of God to the power of the state. Such an understanding of god (gods) was perforce top-down, so that the claims of empire were theologically imposed by the empire of force.

The gods whom the liturgy attested were champions of extraction and commoditization in the service of a coherent social order. That social order eventually came to be accepted as normal and normative by the populace, so that extraction and commoditization came to be viewed as routine.

Such hegemony, performed as normative liturgy, becomes the “common sense limit” of ordinary life beyond which it is not possible to imagine. The god (gods) celebrated in the imperial liturgy assured the legitimacy, normalcy, and ordinariness of such policy and practice.

It is in that recurring, almost constant context of empire that the Old Testament became the countertext of ancient Israel. The Old Testament is offered as an alternative to the imperial narrative that dominates ordinary imagination. That countertext intends to subvert the dominant imperial text and so is rightly seen as a “sub-version.” The trajectory of texts that the synagogue and the church entertain as “good news” bears witness to an emancipatory God who stands apart from

and over against the mythic claims of imperial religion.  The God attested in the Exodus narrative, the covenantal tradition of Deuteronomy, and the prophetic corpus stands over against the ideology of empire. The paradigmatic narrative of Exodus–sojourn–Sinai, presided over by Moses, yields an alternative narrative that is occupied by an alternative God:

  • The Exodus narrative (Exod 1–15) exhibits Yhwh—in the service of emancipation and the end of economic extraction—as more powerful than the Egyptian gods (see Exod 12:12).
  •  The narrative of wilderness sojourn (Exod 16–18)— with the surprising gifts of abundant water, bread, and meat—witnesses against the usurpatious ideology of scarcity that propels Pharaoh. The wilderness narrative teems with abundance for all for all.
  • The meeting at Sinai yields a covenantal relationship wherein Yhwh and the people of Yhwh pledge abiding fidelity to each other (Exod 19–24):

This very day the Lord your God is commanding you to observe these statutes and ordinances; so observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul. Today you have obtained the Lord’s agreement: to be your God, and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him. Today the Lord has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people, for him to set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame, and in honor; and for you to be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised. (Deut 26:16-19)

In sum we are able to see that the emancipatory narrative of Exodus, the abundance attested in the wilderness, and the covenant of Sinai provide a very different account of lived reality in the world due to the decisive agency of Yhwh. In each of these episodes in the narrative, it is the newly engaged God, Yhwh, who makes the decisive difference. Yhwh is unlike the gods of the empire; Yhwh has no interest in extraction:

Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
your burnt offerings are continually before me.
I will not accept a bull from your house, or goats from your folds.
For every wild animal of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the air,
and all that moves in the field is mine. (Ps 50:8-11)

Yhwh values human community and human persons, and refuses the reduction of even the vulnerable to the status of dispensable commodity:

You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge. (Deut 24:17)

This God, as given in the narrative, is not immune to the practice of violence, but the narrative of this God is on a trajectory that critiques the practice of violence in the interest of neighbourliness.

 Thus, the issue is joined in the narrative between the imperial practice of extraction, commodity, and violence legitimated by the imperial gods, and the practice of neighbourly reality and fidelity legitimated by the emancipatory, covenant-making God of Israelite tradition. It is conventional to assign to the imperial gods the qualities of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. And Yhwh, to be sure, is seen as well to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere present. These marks that are common among the gods, however, are not the most characteristic marking of Yhwh. In contrast to the gods of empire, Yhwh is praised and celebrated most characteristically for an eager capacity for fidelity. This turns out to be the tenacious, long-term commitment of Yhwh to Yhwh’s covenant partners, Israel and all creation. It is fidelity that marks the good news of Israel’s texts and that speaks broadly and passionately against extraction and commoditization.

The decisive difference in this God yields, derivatively, a decisively different notion of world history and of human persons in human community. When the gods are presented as legitimators of extraction and commoditization, then the mark of effective humanness is to be competent extractors who can reduce all else to dispensable commodity. When, however, the legitimating God is an agent of reliable, big-time fidelity, then the quintessence of humanness is the practice of such fidelity that embraces neighbourliness and that eventuates in a society of public justice. Thus, in the emancipatory-covenantal tradition of the Old Testament, human agents are, in replication of the emancipatory, covenant-making God, charged with neighbourly fidelity. Whereas imperial accounts of reality specialize in static order and the maintenance of preferred arrangements in the political economy, the tradition of emancipatory covenant-making, by contrast, affirms human agents who have the capacity and responsibility to act transformatively for the well-being of the human community and the ecology of creation.

All of that pertains to the ancient context wherein the subversive narrative of Israel lived in ongoing tension with imperial accounts of reality, and amid that tension resisted imperial accounts while proposing alternatives. Our reading of these ancient texts is, characteristically, by way of analogue. We are drawn to trace out analogues between the “original” context of the text and our contemporary reading context. And when we do that, we find that we ourselves also read the biblical texts in contexts of imperial power.

While we can, in global context, identify other empires or would-be empires, closest to us are the imperial pretensions of the United States, for globalization is primarily a project of political economy propelled by the United States.6 It is easy enough to see that the United States, with its inexhaustible consumerism, its unrivalled military power, and its growing economic gap between haves and have-nots, is a forceful, willful practitioner of extraction and commoditization.

In that context, our contemporary reading of the Bible, in its emancipatory, covenant-making trajectory, invites to sub-version, resistance, and alternative. In our present social circumstance of willful extraction and commoditization, the practice of neighbourly fidelity, in replication of the neighbourly fidelity of the God of the gospel, is a crucial mandate for the well-being of our society.

God Neighbour Empire: The Excess of Fidelity and the Command of the Common Good, is available for £12.00 in our Winter Sale.


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