The Totalism of Empire and the Hope of #TrulyHuman Life

Our church, Word of Life in St. Joseph, Missouri, just wrapped up our 2015 Faith & Culture Conference with Walter Brueggemann and our lead pastor, Brian Zahnd. We gathered together for five sessions packed with presentations and conversations regarding the faithful witness of the church in the 21st century. Brian discussed his theological journey towards a richer faith, a more ancient faith, and a more authentic faith, a faith journey marked by books and dreams. He described the theologians who have led him on this journey including Walter Brueggemann.

The presence of Brueggemann created an interesting mix of people at the conference. We had millennials and aging boomers. We had Catholics and Protestants. We had seminary students and pastors. We had evangelicals and main-liners. We had conservatives and liberals. We came together to learn from one another and to learn from arguably the foremost Old Testament scholar living today. Brueggemann has been a help to pastors and church leaders through his books and lectures, because his work with the Old Testament has helped the church see herself as an alternative community, a “voice from elsewhere,” a subversive gathering of people, #trulyhuman people, who bear witness to another way besides the way of empire.

A recurring theme through the conference was the totalizing effect of empire. The dominance of empire, from ancient ones to the empire where we live and work and pastor today, creates what Brueggemann calls “totalism.” The massive power of empire creates an all-encompassing presence leaving no segment of human society in the shadows. Governance, economic systems, arts, social structures, education, and entertainment brightly reflect the glowing light of the preeminence of empire. The prophet, according to Brueggemann, brings a word from elsewhere. While the voice of empire gushes forth the speech of domination and control, the prophet comes with a word of subversion and freedom. The people of God from Abraham forward have had their prophets, people who bring a tightly-packed and compressed word with the capacity to break the totalism and topple the empire with an alternative imagination.

unnamed-1Empires are not interested in producing flourishing human society; empires are interested in maintaining power. In the blinding light of totalism, people do not become #trulyhuman. They remain oppressed and marginalized or numb and robotic. The task of the church is to be a faithful witness to an imagination shaped by the biblical narrative, a long tradition of fidelity to another way. Empires works hard to silence the alternative voices. The church meets to witness to the subversive words from elsewhere in order to resist the totalism of empire. This witness, according to Brueggemann, defies imperial reality, pointing to a deeper reality in the life of the triune God.

Bearing the stamp of empire, people become clones; bearing the image of God, people become #trulyhuman. The spirit of empire in America is driven by the same spirit of the ancient empires, that is, the idolatry of the economy. Our modern empire expresses its totalism through consumerism. The impulse to consume is everywhere; it is the propaganda of empire. Citizens of the empire become defined (and deformed) by this consumption. We become convinced that all our anxieties and problems and pains can be relieved if we can just make that next purchase. Under the weight of totalism our souls shrink and our feet shuffle along the way on a road of destruction, but then comes Jesus. He comes as a prophet with words from elsewhere. He comes to reveal the beastliness of empire. He comes as the way, telling the truth and revealing the hope of life, #trulyhuman life, free from the script of empire. His death and resurrection saves us. According to Brueggemann:

The cross is the outcome of Jesus' resolve to embody the faithfulness of God right in the face of the totalism.

Jesus leads the way to a #trulyhuman life through his death and resurrection and he swings wide the door to life through the waters of baptism. Brueggemann exhorted us to remember: “The waters of baptism are the path to freedom, so do not keep your feet dry.”

Our time with Walter Brueggemann was challenging and encouraging. It was good for conference attendees (like me) who self-identify as conservative evangelicals to listen to, and learn from, a scholar who identifies himself as a liberal. He may come from a different tradition than some of us, but we are a part of the same church——the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

If you are interested in hearing any or all of the session from Walter Brueggemann or Brian Zahnd at the Faith & Culture Conference you can purchase downloads of the conference audio at wolc.com/conferenceaudio. Use offer code fcc2015missio to save 20%.  

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