Posts Tagged 'American Empire'

The Empire is Among Us (and Jesus is Luke Skywalker?)


“What the hell is ‘The Empire’?” I kept asking myself and my friends, bewildered after every Theology of Culture class with Brian Walsh this past September. He mentioned it in nearly every class, saying it had “captivated the West’s imaginations” and we all needed to “subvert” it. I was incredibly confused. After making the same “Like does he think it will strike back??”  lame attempt at a joke with each friend, we’d then get into a passionate discussion, trying to decipher what he meant. It’s “the Man” that is begging to be damned, it’s “the Machine” that is to be raged against, it’s “the Matrix” that is to be decoded and exposed. Or as my roommate Rob (who has worked with B. Walsh for years) would say with a half smirk, “hehehe, good question. I don’t even think he knows anymore.” While I knew intrinsically that I would be inspired if I could sort out in my brain all that I was learning about this new (to me) approach to interpreting the Scriptures, I was too afraid to ask such a simple question to my professor. He seemed to assume we all knew just what he meant when referring to this culturally packed word. After sheepishly gathering up the tiniest amount of courage, I asked him what it was, and received a rather brilliant, enlightening explanation. All which made perfect sense for a whole 3 hours, until I fell asleep, thinking giddily to myself “Jen, you should totally write this down! You get it!” The next morning, when I tried to explain to my counselor that I’d had a breakdown-turned-breakthrough, all I could enthusiastically spurt out was some mumble jumble about “the powers that be” and “not flying away to heaven.” Feeling somewhat defeated, yet utterly resolved to sort this out for my own personal sanity, I spent several hours on the website Empire Remixed, which, for the purpose of this assignment [for B. Walsh], I’ve decided to review as a cultural product.  Hopefully, by the end of this paper, and yet another frantic phone call to my classmate Dave Krause (who has been claiming repeatedly than B. Walsh is his best friend), I will have this all figured out.

According to Andy Crouch in his book Culture Making, a good way to learn about a culture (like ours, circa 2009) is to ask five questions of a cultural product it creates (such as Empire Remixed). The first question is, “What does this cultural product assume about the way the world is?” First, the website Empire Remixed assumes by its very medium that there’s a certain demographic of people, largely located in the West, that seek information through a networking of computers called the “internet.” People pay for access to this pool of information and are able thereafter freely post and respond to ideas. By the content of the ideas on Empire Remixed, one would assume that its creators believe that there’s an empire that is currently in power, that it’s distorting reality and controlling the masses, and that it needs to be rethought, reverted, and ultimately redeemed. The creators of the website are thus warning others who are reading their ideas about the dangers of this empire and are posing an alternative to being subject to it. However, freedom of speech is very present in this culture, even though it is supposedly under the rule of some evil empire! So what exactly is the nature of “The Empire”?

Well, an empire is, according to Wikipedia (another internet-based information source – obviously revealing the fact that I’m currently writing within the same culture), “a strong, centrally-controlled nation-state” but it can also refer to “a large-scale business enterprise (i.e. a transnational corporation) and a political organization of either national-, regional-, or city scale, controlled either by a person (a political boss) or a group authority (political bosses).” So, “The Empire” is essentially made up of several power systems and structures (political, economic, cultural and/or social) that are dominant in our world today. This would include (but is not be limited to), Western-style capitalism that creates all sorts of global injustice, the ideology of consumerism, the politics of greed, corruption and power, the destruction of the environment, and the media that portrays these systems as natural, woman as objects, and sex as merely a commodity.

According to the creators of Empire Remixed, the nature and ways of The Empire are diametrically opposed to the nature and ways of God, the Creator of the World. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Israelites, God’s chosen people, are taken captive several times, and live in exile under the rule of either the Babylonian, Syrian, or Roman Empires (or others). The Israelites, commanded by God to live a distinct life that would separate them from the surrounding peoples, lived in exile under the control of the Babylonians, Syrians, or Romans (plus others). All empires not only had political and economic control over the Israelites, but they influenced their way of thinking, worshiping, and essentially their very identity. They became idolatrous, greedy, and conformed to the destructive mindsets and practices of their captors. They became people of the empire. The prophets, over and over throughout the centuries, came to call the Israelites to repent for taking on the idols and practices of the empires, and to remind them of their true identity, that they are the people of God.  According to Brian Walsh, when Jesus came, his entire life was lived in subversion to the Roman Empire, pointing the Israelites to reclaim their true identity and place in the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom turns the power structure of the empire on its head, by proclaiming that those who want to be first must be a servant of all, and that love, mercy, and justice should take the place of idolatry, greed, and oppression. By dying on a cross, the execution style used to maintain pax Romana, Jesus humbly surrendered his life to the violence of the Empire. But through his resurrection, he ultimately defeated the power of the Empire, ushering in a new era of everlasting peace and rule of a new empire – the Kingdom of God. He thus opened up possibilities for all to out their true identities, as the reconciled people of God, devoted to Kingdom principles.

According to Empire Remixed, there are many parallels that can be made between the Israelites who lived in exile, struggling to live as the People of God while under the powerful influence of the Empire, and modern Christians who currently live in a society that is controlled by the unjust practices and destructive, identity-distorting messages of globalized capitalism. During an interview with Empire Remixed in May 2006, N.T. Wright said that, “the Western economic structures, mostly located in, or based in, or at least in cahoots with the United States, have actually achieved without territorial conquest the same kind of hegemony over the rest of the world that in past days people achieved through precisely territorial conquest.” This is a rule that depends on greed, cut-throat competition, and oppression of the poor in order to maintain power that is held by a miniscule minority. Its rule depends on its subjects to buy into consumerism, the myth of progress, and selfish individualism in order to preserve pax Americana. It’s a rule pervades every area of people’s lives, threatening to steal their loyalties away from the one true Lord of the World, Jesus, and the one rightful empire – The Kingdom of God. As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)

Thus, The Empire needs to be “remixed.” Andy Crouch’s second question to ask of a cultural product is, “What does it assume about the way the world should be?” First, the website assumes that Christ-followers should have an alternative to blindly following the ways of The Empire. There is a better way, and it starts by “remixing” the elements of the old way. In choosing the word “remixed”, the creators of the website also assume that it’s readers will understand the reference to the widely practiced technique of remixing music. To remix music is to change up the different elements of a song – to hear it again with a totally different perspective, a sought after “new and improved” version of the old. So, “remixing” the Empire is taking its elements, its distorted and dehumanizing mindsets and practices, and turning them on their heads. How does this look, practically speaking? A litany written by creators of Empire Remixed called “Amidst the Powers – A Benediction,” beautifully suggests that we should “dethrone the powers by redeeming them.” What does this look like in everyday life? The litany goes on:

If the powers render you homeless, build homes.
If the powers reduce sexuality to a commodity, enter into faithful covenant.
If the powers rob you of your children, then take them back.
If the powers create domination, then embrace sacrifice.
If the powers despoil creation, then plant a garden.
If the powers take away your wealth, then give away freely.
All of this is ‘kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.’

Thus, Christians should be continually subverting the Empire by starting with an element it throws at them, “remixing it,” and redeeming it by living out it’s intended Kingdom purpose. To remix the element of homelessness, therefore, is to build homes. To remix the destruction of creation is to plant a garden. To remix greed is to be generous, to remix consumerism is to live simply, to remix selfish individualism is to love and serve your neighbor. All of this is, “kicking at the darkness until it bleeds daylight,” a reference to the lyrics of Bruce Cockburn. In referring to the musician, the website also assumes that prophetic voices can be heard through modern musicians. Thus, God is still speaking today – giving the same old message, granted – but using contemporary artists as a medium to reach a new generation.

The third question to ask of a cultural product is, “What does it make possible?” Empire Remixed makes it possible for thousands of people, in 94 countries across the world (as of Oct. 11, 2009), to have access to (what it’s creators believe) is an alternative, prophetic vision of the world as it should be, as lived under the authority of Jesus. The subtitle of the website is “rethinking everything,” and that it attempts to do. The website contains articles written by several different contributors that journal their struggle to understand how to think about and live out the Kingdom of God in their current cultural context. There are many personal entries about the writers’ thoughts on conducting relevant ministry, Christianity and homosexuality, speaking the truth, the gender of God, depression and suicide, the economy, simple living, social justice, current issues in the news, and the modern prophetic voices of various musicians, authors, and artists, just to name a few topics. But there aren’t only articles. The creators of Empire Remixed have hosted events that have given flesh to their ideas and conversations. Author and theologian N.T. Wright was invited to speak, play music, and dance with (maybe?) all who were willing to crowd into a Toronto nightclub for the opportunity to be inspired by his ideas and engage him in conversation. Activist and author Shane Claiborne, founder of the Simple Way, was also invited to speak about what it means to radically live out the Kingdom of God among the least of these in our society. Other musicians and, including Martyn Joseph and Marva Dawn, have all been invited to play and speak, all contributing to the ongoing discussion about how exactly to “remix the Empire.”

The fourth question to be asked of a cultural product is, “What does it make impossible (or difficult)?” First, Empire Remixed makes it difficult for the uneducated in the ways of “empire talk” to understand what they mean by “The Empire!” No where on the site is there a clear and concise definition or explanation, and any reference to empire is extremely, extremely vague. While writing this paper, I asked several people who know of the site what they thought the definition of “empire” was, and I got very different answers (see the first paragraph again). Even Dave Krause, one of the contributors to the site, couldn’t explain it without going on for an hour! (I finally gave him a pen and told him to write it down in 5 minutes or less, and he still took 15!) For a group of people that are concerned about the majority of political and economic power being held by the top 1%, it is ironic that one must have access to a certain small number of books and theories (mostly written in English and published in academic circles) in order to be enlightened enough to be able to understand the true nature of the world’s invisible exile.

Granted, essentially the idea of empire is as old as the scriptures, but in the circles I grew up in, we were talking about it using different language. I’ve been hearing all my life to “love not the world, nor the things in the world. For if any man loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15). “The world” was always explained to me as the mindsets, practices, and ideologies that set itself up against the Kingdom of God. I was taught to thus not be selfish, jealous, or unkind, but instead to have the “love of the Father in me” which would mean being selfless, content with what I had, and caring to my neighbors. However, the language of “the world” has lost its meaning to me in the last few years, and to a culture that is also sick of clichéd religious jargon, a new spin (a remix, if you will) on an old concept might not be a bad idea. Thus, Empire Remixed makes it difficult for religious folk to use the same old language without become irrelevant to the culture around them.

The last question to be asked of a cultural product is, “What new forms of culture are created in response to it?” Empire Remixed has sparked many discussions, both on and off the Internet, about how exactly a Christian is to think, live, and follow Jesus in our current cultural context. There have been discussions surrounding the nature of The Empire (like this paper, for instance), negative impacts it has had on the world, and how exactly we are to go on, worshiping the Redeemer and actively participating in the redemption of all creation. The events hosted by Empire Remixed that has included lectures, discussions, music, art, and food, all in the context of a community, have also been created in response to it, all as attempts to “kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight.”

Empire Remixed is definitely a product of our times. In a prophetic voice and through the accessible medium of the internet, the contributors describe reality as they see it (we are living in an age where the complex web of power structures have captured our imaginations and distorted our very identity), warn all of the dangers and distortions of this reality (consumerism, individualism, injustice and the commodification of sex, etc., will destroy you and the world) and offer a hopeful alternatives as followers of Jesus (Remix the Empire! Live redemptively. Know that your identity rests in being people of God). The website opens up possibilities of “rethinking everything” and allowing thousands of people from across the globe access to the discussion. Although its precise explanations of empire are vague, the ideas it publishes are refreshing, enlightening, and just plain inspiring. Which is a heck of a lot more than I can say for the fifth episode of Star Wars.

(This was my first assignment for my *Theology of Culture* class, written last September. It’s funny to look back now, I’ve learned so much and have taken two more classes with the same prof, Brian Walsh. Hands down the man is brilliant, and continues to inspire, confuse, and challenge me to this day. Oh – and I got an A!)


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