Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Rationales for a Non-Imperial American Christianity

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

In December, I wrote a pair of pieces about American Christianity as an imperial religion and routes forward toward (a) non-imperial version(s) of American Christianity.

Since writing those pieces, I have come to realize that they had a very "sociology of religion" feel to them that failed to provide a specifically Christian rationale for why the work of constructing non-imperial American Christianity is important.

Thus, I would like to attempt to do that in this piece. I want to lay out three such rationales for that project: one theological, one moral and ethical, and one evangelistic

A Theological Rationale
The theological rationale is the most basic: A religion that is primarily about empire cannot be primarily about Christ, as Christianity should be. You cannot serve two masters.

Yet it is clear which master imperial religion serves. I defined imperial religion as follows: "[A]n imperial religion [i]s one whose symbols serve to affirm the reality of the imperial ordering of the world within its orbit." Thus, the symbols of an imperial religion point primarily toward the empire.

In true Christianity, on the other hand, the symbols of the religion point primarily toward Christ. There are many different ways to use the symbols of theological language, ritual, art, and the like to point to Christ, but true Christianity is about orienting believers to a way of being in the world that is ordered around Christ.

Imperial Christianity, in contrast, may use Christ as a symbol, and a powerful one at that, but its goal is not to orient the adherent toward Christ, but to use the symbol of Christ to orient the adherent towards ways of behaving that conform to the imperial ordering of the world.

Thus, on a theological analysis, American Christianity cannot be an imperial religion and be true Christianity. Thus, for American Christianity to be true Christianity, it must take non-imperial forms.

A Moral and Ethical Rationale
Empires are built upon power and the interests of the powerful. Those interests almost always go against the interests of those without power, at least on some important points. Thus, empire is about the use of power to further the interests of a few at the expense of many others. It should be obvious that this is a system rife for moral and ethical catastrophe.

Imperial religion, as a handmaid to empire itself, takes on all of the moral and ethical ambiguities and failures of the empire itself. Indeed, one of the important functions of the symbols of an imperial religion is to deny or mitigate the sense of moral catastrophe involved in empire. Thus, imperial religion amounts to a form of aiding and abetting the misdeeds of the empire.

Yet true Christianity involves a system of ethics and morality that transcends and is not swayed by the interests of the powerful. Christianity promises that all alike are created in the image of God and that all alike stand under the judgment of God.

There are plenty of forms of moral failure possible for non-imperial versions of Christianity, but it is impossible to practice imperial Christianity without accepting moral failure as a basic feature.

An Evangelistic Rationale
Both of the previous two rationales combine in the third rationale: the evangelistic.

Evangelism involves pointing others towards Christ and aiding them in walking in that direction. Imperial Christianity disrupts both of those efforts.

First, as noted in the theological rationale above, imperial Christianity points not toward Christ but towards the empire as its most important point of orientation. Thus, evangelism as pointing others towards Christ becomes difficult if not impossible when all of the signs that say "Christ" on them are actually pointing to the empire.

Second, to the extent that one can successfully point toward Christ even amid a system of imperial Christianity, the moral and ethical failures entailed in imperial religion represent a major roadblock for those seeking to walk toward and with Christ. This is especially true in the attempt to do evangelism with those on the underside of empire.

For both of these reasons, then, imperial Christianity is a major hindrance to evangelism. Again, it is possible that non-imperial versions of Christianity may also have their own evangelistic problems, but the problems of imperial Christianity are clear and must be avoided.

Thus, for all three of these rationales, I do not believe it is possible to faithfully propagate an imperial version of Christianity.

Yet we are called to Christian faith. Thus, to be faithful to Christ and to our calling, we must try to be Christian in non-imperial ways, even if it is a difficult process or goes against the prevailing cultural forms of the faith. Our Christian faith must impel us toward non-imperial forms of that faith.

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