“On Being the People of God
in the Midst of Empire”
A review of
Two New Books on Scripture and Empire.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
Out of Babylon.
Paperback: Abingdon, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
Come Out, My People:
God’s Call Out of Empire
in the Bible and Beyond.
Paperback: Orbis Books, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
In light of recent works that defend the role of Christianity within Empire, it has been refreshing to find two excellent new books that utilize the biblical narrative as a whole to call the people of god out of Empire and the ways of the Empire, specifically Walter Brueggemann’s newest book Out of Babylon and Wes Howard-Brook’s Come Out, My People: God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond. Brueggemann’s book is a relatively brief and very readable account of the image of Babylon in scripture (particularly the Old Testament) and the implications of this biblical image for God’s people in the midst of the American empire today. Howard-Brook’s work offers a longer, more detailed account that explores the whole biblical story through the lens of the contrast between the “religion of creation” (i.e., what God intends for creation) and the “religion of empire.”
In Out of Babylon, Brueggemann – who is likely the most heralded Old Testament scholar at work today – continues a project that he started in Journey to the Common Good, namely “[tracing] the defiant, pathos-filled resistance of ‘local truth’ against empire, even as it continues among contemporary Christians who must live agilely in the midst of the deeply problematic power of the U.S. empire” (1). Early on in the book, Brueggemann tackles the question of to what extent is the United States representative of the “local tradition” (i.e., “God’s chosen people, a carrier of God’s purpose amidst a world of ‘godless nations’”) or of the biblical tradition of empire. This typology is intriguing because it will be, in essence, the foundation of Howard-Brook’s exploration in Come Out, My People. Using the biblical text of the Old Testament, Brueggemann draws parallels between Israel as bearers of local tradition in the midst of Babylon and churches functioning in a similar way in the American empire. Specifically, Brueggemann focuses on the themes of contesting or critiquing empire and departing from empire. He then uses the recent song “Time in Babylon,” written Jill Cunnliff, Darryl Hall and Emmylou Harris to as a lens to explore the biblical themes that he has developed over the course of the book and how they apply to our present situation in the United States. Here he challenges readers – even those who don’t agree with the assessment that the United States is an empire – to judge our nation by its fruits. He concludes that the U.S. has some positive fruits in its maintaining of global stability and its investment in developing nations; however, these positives are outweighed by the reality of the U.S. being “a predator economy that seizes resources, imposes a certain culture, does immense damage to the environment and leaves many societies in poor shape by a pattern of intrusion and departure” (127). He concludes the book with a superb chapter on the biblical differences between the Babylonian and Persian empires and what these differences might mean for churches today (i.e., the shift from exile/restoration to accommodation/resistance.) He uses a number of different biblical stories – Joseph, Daniel, Esther – to show that the Persian model of God’s people engaging the empire assume that “empire is not completely intractable, but that it can be moved by shrewd engagement” (150). Thus, Brueggemann has given us here another superb biblical meditation that calls us to take the whole narrative of scripture seriously and to reflect on its meaning for social imagination of God’s people in the United States today.
Wes Howard Brook’s Come Out, My People makes a perfect reading companion for Brueggemann’s Out of Babylon, or perhaps even better, a more in-depth follow-up exploration. Going back to the Latin root of our English word “religion,” religio, which means to bind again, Howard-Brook’s fundamental question he tackles here is: what binds us together, again and again, as the people of God. As noted above, the two basic type of religion are the religion of empire and the religion of creation. Early on in the book, Howard-Brook contrasts these two religions, noting theological (one god vs. many), social (“egalitarian kinship” vs. “hierarchical patronage”), political (“God alone reigns” vs. the reign of a human king) and economic (“gift, barter, collaboration amid abundance” vs. “Money, debt, competition amid scarcity”) differences between these two basic religions. These contrasting religions then provide the lens through which Howard-Brook reads the whole scriptural story over the course of the book. Howard-Brook has structured the book into four parts that, like the biblical story that he is exploring, spans the whole of human history.
The first part is an exploration of how these two religions came into existence, which is a reflection on the biblical text of Genesis. This part is perhaps the finest work in the book, drawing theological voices like that of Walter Wink and Ched Myers into conversation with social critics like Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford in one of the most helpful and insightful accounts of the origins of the powers and how we fell out of the way God intended for us and into the sort of mess that continues to the present day. The book’s second part explores how these religions were in conflict with each other amidst the Israelite people from the time of the exodus out of Egypt to the time of the exile. In this part, Howard-Brook explores the rise of the monarchy as well as that of the prophets. In the third part of the book, Howard-Brook examines the post-exilic period which he extends through just before the birth of Jesus. Here, he uses biblical texts and extra-biblical historical accounts to explore the role that the basic religions of empire and creation played in the age leading up to the life of Jesus. In the book’s final part, he examines the role that these two religions play in the New Testament era through the present time. The vast amount of his attention is on the New Testament texts, and especially the four gospels, on which he spends a chapter each, examining how these religions interact in the life and times of Jesus. Sadly, very little is said about the interplay of these religions in the 1900 years or so since the close of the New Testament era. Certainly, there are parts of his final brief chapter on the biblical text of Revelation and of his two-page conclusion that are pertinent to the intervening centuries, but an examination of the whole swath of Church history through a similar lens seems like a promising and fruitful exercise that may be undertaken at some point.
Come out, My People is undoubtedly one of the most important theological studies to be released in 2010. In recent memory, there have been other works that examine parts of scripture in light of the concept of empire (e.g., Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat’s Colossians Remixed; Richard Horsley’s Jesus and Empire and Paul and Empire), but none with which I am familiar has tackled the whole of the scriptural narrative with the depth and the clarity with which Howard-Brook has exhibited here.
Reflecting on the concept of empire is certainly a timely exercise and both Brueggemann and Howard-Brook serve as keen guides to facilitate such reflection. If one has not thought much about the implications of empire in today’s world, then Brueggemann’s Out of Babylon is the preferable place to start, and his book should be followed up by a reading of Howard-Brook’s Come Out, My People. Those who have been reflecting for some time already on the place of the Church amidst the empire of the United States, may prefer to jump directly into the deep and rich waters of Come Out, My People. Regardless, churches can no longer afford to ignore the task of discerning their prophetic role amidst the present socio-political milieu. These books are highly recommended for assisting us in these sorts of discerning conversations.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com