Sunday, September 28, 2008

Warren Carter on Negotiating the Empire

I had the pleasure of attending Stalcup School of Theology for the Laity yesterday who offered a series of lectures on Negotiating the Roman Empire in the New Testament by the esteemed Professor of New Testament Dr. Warren Carter from Brite Divinity School (TCU). Carter has written extensively on the Gospels in their Imperial context (such titles as: Matthew and the Margins, Matthew and Empire, and most recently John and Empire).

He presented three engaging lecture/discussion sessions. Each format provided initial discussions into the imperial foreground of the texts of the New Testament. He unpacked the socio-economic stratification of the elite vis-a-vis the rest of society (i.e. the 97% of people!). Underscoring the convergence of economic, political, religious, and civic life in the first century, he provided a robust reorientation to the gospels. I personally found Carter's style a model approach for presenting imperial and postcolonial concerns in a manner conducive to reception within the local church. What was most intriguing, and in my case encouraging for my own future vocational pursuits, was his ability to present the information in such a practical way, stripped of technical academically oriented terms, while never failing to deliver the content of those terms in a way anyone could perceive. Certainly, these are the hallmarks of good education in the local church context.

Further, he set forth the contours of much of his published material. The final lecture/discussion took on John and Empire wherein he described some of the factors relative to the "eternal life" found in Jesus over against the "Roma aeterna." I found this the most interesting area of the discussion, largely because it was so new to me. Previously, I considered John a difficult text to navigate in terms of imperial interaction, yet in the few brief minutes that he spoke, it became clear that John may well be one of the easier texts to analyze with respect to empire. Carter's works and thoughts are certainly on the cutting edge of reading the Gospels in their context. I suggest highly picking up, as I have, his recent publication John and Empire: Initial Explorations [T & T Clark, 2008]).

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Imperial Jaundice: Reflections on Being a Christian in America

An old expression that is really growing on me is that "every thing is yellow to the jaundiced eye" which is tantamount to saying one's situatedness in life fundamentally colors they way in which one perceives, knows, and engages the world. Therefore, I would like to appropriate a new term, at least I think it is original, Imperial Jaundice. Herein I think the expression properly captures the nature of the American imperial jaundice epidemic. This is the disease, literally and metaphorically, of the religion of Empire, namely, patriotism, nationalism, and Americanism. The disease is characterized by the stories we tell each other in the narrative world that we have constructed around the world experienced through our lenses. So deep and subversive is this illness that it is virtually undetectable, lurking below the molecular level. Indeed, even as one who is beginning to recognize how entrenched in the American imperial ideology that I am, there is yet a conflict. A deep conflict of soul, difficult to describe, but utterly real. Why is it that I understand, to some degree, the seriousness of the call to radically follow Jesus. I recognize that the American Empire and even the expression of mainline Christianity of any denomination for the most part is inherently complicit to empire and yet there is a resistance in my soul, an ambivalence. At one and the same moment I hate and yet am drawn to my imperial heritage. This space, this ambiguous, ambivalent circumstance torments me. On one hand, the New Testament presents Jesus as a peacemaker and the early church as a social body, functioning in a cooperative/voluntary mode something akin to socialism. Jesus stood up for the poor and working class, those whom empire and the elite had swept under the carpet. While I know these things, and am rather convinced of their truthfulness, when I consider the capitalist system in which we live, where profit is god and the marginalized are part of the machinery, why do I still resist movements toward socialism? Why do I resist internally, at the heart level, the notion that somehow bigger government will really in the end help the marginalized? I want to believe. But something in my soul fights against that. In life we all learn by experience various principles we call "wisdom" or "common sense." What is a Christian to do, when I know capitalism is wrong, and yet I don't think movements toward a socialist state would really be better in the end?

I'm vexed by this. I think a real encounter is being made at the core of my being; I'm beginning to understand some of the categories of postcolonial criticism by means of experience. More will come on this topic, but I wonder, does anyone else struggle with this?