The Church Is Not Anti-Empire: A Response

I am grateful for a newsletter I’ve chosen to regularly receive, called Inward/Outward, from Church Of The Savior in Washington, D.C. I deeply value their ethos, and it is generally shared here in our faith community in St. Stephen.

It is a newsletter I highly recommend you join for daily formation ideas.

However, the last newsletter begged an issue on which I have strong feelings, and therefore I include the post and my response here.

Upside-down Kingdom

By Gordon Cosby

We moderate and polish the world’s thinking, and name it Christian. The church embodies the upside-down kingdom. Whatever the world admires is probably not good, according to kingdom values. The church is always anti-empire.

What the church does is provide a place where pain can be touched and where the vision for a new world can be lifted up and held before people.

Source: quoted by Peter Renner in “Good Is a Timely Word”

DAN’S RESPONSE

I’m always grateful for the insights in the Inward/Outward newsletter, but in this case, I must raise a voice of disagreement.

The Church is not always “anti-empire.” If in this case we are defining the empire as the self-sufficient culture (as it seems in Gordon’s words above), I would offer a contrasting thought.

When it is assumed the Church should be “anti-empire,” and we believe or unquestioningly affirm these words, in my estimation we have chosen the wrong enemy.

I would suggest that this idea is a carry-over from historic Christan ideas that toxify (to greater or lesser degrees) and possibly nullify our capacity to enact a joyful missional spirituality in the world.

To say the culture does not value forgiveness, generosity, justice, beauty and even unconditional love – and the Church does, in contrast – is simply not true in my experience.

It is indeed the distortions of culture (we are “indisputably bent” as Shaeffer once said) that blind us from the centrality of these values, it is indeed the culture’s stories that disorient us from the Story that is their source. We are unquestionably blinded by the empire to the values that make humanity humane.

However, we can see these values popping out all about us in “unbelieving” culture; one can’t quite keep the ImageBearer from shining through, especially in times of trouble or distress.

In the artistic community, we often see these themes bursting through from the unbelieving culture, and I suggest that the condemning of “empire” is rooted in a misunderstanding of how God sees the Church moving in human culture.

We are part of human culture, indeed part of the empire, just as we also are a part of a transcendent community that is a King-led, Kingdom community across time.

But to say that we are always to be “anti-empire,” is an old condemnation (again, in my humble perspective) of “all cultural values,” that pushes us to be more set apart in thinking, style and form than I think God requires of us. The paradigm of sacred/secular rears its head once again, and throws us back into unhelpful worldviews that are less than biblical at almost every turn.

Culture is not the enemy. It is a textbook to be studied, and endorsed or challenged at every turn. I agree that we are part of the New Creation voice, and that our minds must be renewed. I also agree that the world is a very dark place, and we are called to be people of light within it.

I just believe that statements such as “the church is always anti-empire” are not only false, but harmful over decades, centuries and millenia.

Empire is not the issue. We are not anti-empire.

Culture is not the issue. We are not anti-culture.

The unawakened heart is the issue.

We are “anti-anything-that-wars-against-the-law-of-Love.”

Join the movement.

We're all on a journey of worship and spiritual formation, and we all want a faith that sustains through the good and bad times. Get the email designed to help you take your great leaps with God.