Race and Empire: How this partnership ties the Church’s hands

This morning, I attended a remarkable lecture at Wesley Theological Seminary where Dr. Joerg Rieger, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, the Wendland-Cook Endowed Professor of Constructive Theology at SMU Perkins School of Theology and author of several books to include Christ and Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times, served as the guest lecturer on “Christ and Empire.”  During the two- hour discussion, we were encouraged to think about the work of empire in the shaping of our theology and Christology. Dr. Rieger began by sharing with us that “empire was here to stay and that Christianity has been a context of empire, beginning with the Roman empire.”  He also shared two definitions of empire: (1) “Empire is something that wants to control all of life.  It wants to shape you all the way down: economics, politics, emotions, desires and beliefs.”  Empire says that “there is no other alternative (This definition was attributed to Margaret Thatcher.).  There is only one way.”  (2)  Empire seeks to “concentrate power in the hands of a few and these hands can be emperors, politicians, business or church leaders.”

Well, of course, I started to think about race.  Race certainly supports these definitions of empire as race seeks to control and define all of life by employing and empowering the hands of a socially colored white few. Race also seeks to “shape us all the way down,” serving as the definition and interpretation of life and how it is lived.  Thus, race and empire can and do work hand in hand, agreeing that a particular socially colored hand be favored and raised above all others.  In recent months, I have heard race and empire shape Sunday morning sermons and weekly Bible studies as they are partnered to make arguments about the future of America’s citizens, its economy and its leadership.  These sermons present an empire- oriented or empire- supporting God, with the divinization of candidates who have God’s spiritual endorsement.  And the American empire is made comparable to the kingdom of God.  I have heard persons speak about this election as if who you vote for will determine the expediency of Christ’s return and/or our descent into hell.

What are we to do with such challenges to the humanization and subsequent, de-divinization of God, a God who is confined to the work of human affairs and whose will is driven by our racial, political, economic and social agendas?  What are we to make of this racialized God of the American empire?  Let me first suggest that many of us are filled not with the Holy Spirit but with the spirit of empire.  I know this to be true because of the absence of partnerships between churches based solely on cultural differences and the traditions of race.  We cannot hold hands with all of God’s children and sit together at the Lord’s Table because despite our common confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, our acceptance of his sacrifce for our sins and our equal position as sinners saved by grace, we still believe that we are not the same.

We will not sing together or pray together or serve together because we believe that God has saved some of us more than others.  For example, if we have been “saved” from financial hardship, we believe that God cares more about us and that our lives are more important as it relates to the work and will of God.  We also believe that God only hears those who “look like” our racialized image of God, made in the color that we deem supreme.  Consequently, God is only in conversation with and thus, only answers some of us.  It is because these statements are true that our relationship with God is not really based on our confession of Christ and we are not saved through his sacrifice on the cross but because of the social coloring of our skin.  We believe that we have more or less access to God, that we are accepted more or less because of race.  It is from this spirit of empire and of race, I might add, that we need to be delivered.  It needs to be cast out, driven away.

Then, I suggest that we challenge this partnership between race and empire and in so doing, become anti- empire theologians.  As Dr. Rieger reminded us, God, in the existence of the Trinity, does not present the divine community and its power as concentrated in the hands of one but they are all of the same substance, coexisting, sharing the divine power, ability and right.  Now, if God can exist in Three Persons and not feel threatened or any less God, then why can’t we exist without feeling the need to be on top?  Perhaps, it is because we would rather our hands be tied than hold someone else’s.

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