Many years ago, when I was first being introduced to readings of the Jesus stories that took things like politics, economics, power, and oppression seriously, one of the key books people in the know talked about was Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now by Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther. I read it around the same time that I read Binding the Strong Man (Ched Myers) and Liberating Paul (Neil Elliott). These books, taken together, really reoriented my understanding of the early Jesus movement, although I did not read them alone — I read them while also immersing myself in liberation theology (and social theory) and while seeking to move into relationships of mutually liberating solidarity with people experiencing oppression, violence, and colonization in my own context. Still, I was (and am) very grateful for the ways in which these texts helped me to orient myself and better understand ancient texts that were very important to me at that time.
In recent years, I’ve been fortunate to become friends with Wes. Mostly online, but I was able to visit with him in Seattle when Jess and I were out there in October. He had seen my interview with Neil Elliott and invited me to engage in a conversation with him around his two books, Come Out, My People! God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond (2010) and Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced what Jesus Rejected 2nd-5th Centuries (2016). I was more than happy to do so! Wes was a gracious and always encouraging dialogue partner. I very much appreciate his writings, his eclectic sources of inspiration, and his willingness to chat about all of these things with me. Thanks, Wes! All the best to you and Sue and those with whom you live and move and have your being — may the death squads never prowl on your streets and may you always find ways to choose love no matter how violent the world becomes.
This is our conversation:
(1) Before I get into the questions related to the content of your two books, I want to ask a personal question. You mention that between the years of 1979 and 1983, you were working in Washington as a government attorney. Then, something happened and by 1985 you were completing an M.Div. You seem to allude to a remarkable, and unexpected transformation taking place in your own life. I wonder if this is also why you emphasize some of the more mystical and experiential components of faith, not to mention things like communal readings, faith-based readings with the assistance of the Spirit, and hiking in the mountains or on trails by the waterways close to you. Your studies and your areas of focus, seem to arise from deeply personal spiritual experiences. Am I wrong it wondering about this? Could you share a bit about your personal journey and how you ended up where you are today?
Sure. I was raised in a secular Jewish home and community in Southern California. I didn’t know a practicing Christian until I was in college. Having been born within a decade of the Holocaust, I grew up feeling terrified by the idea that Christians would kill me if they knew I was Jewish. Although no one in my family was in Germany (they came from Russia and Romania in the 1880s), my cultural context understood “Christianity” as the enemy.
I was bar mitzvahed to please my kosher-keeping grandma, whom I loved dearly, and for the big party that came with it. Since my mom was a single mom and struggled to make ends meet, that party was a highlight of my childhood! But it meant nothing “religiously.” Being “Jewish” was purely a cultural identity.
While in college, I experimented with psychedelic drugs, as did so many in Berkeley in the 70s. This led to a mountain experience of what I came to call “God,” but wouldn’t have and didn’t at the time. My unlikely mystical introduction led me first through Eastern religions, via the coaxing of writers like Aldous Huxley and Fritzoj Capra (The Tao of Physics). Eventually, through a relationship with a middle-aged Roman Catholic man at the store where I worked, I learned of mystics like St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, and Thomas Merton. It was my first exposure to a “Christian” perspective that made any sense of my experience. I was baptized Roman Catholic in 1976, in the brief interim between college and law school.
Having resolved my spiritual identity (for the moment!), I proceeded on my plan to become an attorney, specializing in antitrust law. I worked in Washington, DC for the Federal Trade Commission and then as Counsel to the US Senate Judiciary Committee. My boss was Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, the Bernie Sanders of a previous generation. Through that experience, I learned just how DC worked: whoever has the most money wins. It was both an exciting and deeply discouraging time. Ronald Reagan had just come into office, transforming government work from “public service” akin to being in the military to faceless bureaucrats wasting hard-earned tax dollars. Further, the economic ideology of neoliberalism (via Milton Friedman) turned antitrust law from a populist vehicle to limit corporate bigness to a technical instrument of a narrowly defined “economic efficiency.” There was no future for me in that world.
I happened upon a job opening in the Washington state Attorney General’s office in Seattle, a city to which I had never been. I jumped at the opportunity get out of DC and return to the West Coast. I knew deeply at the time (in 1983) that the Attorney General job was a ticket to Seattle, where something else awaited. What that “something else” was I had no idea! I knew exactly one person in Seattle at the time.
By happenstance or grace, I found myself at the local Jesuit parish, St. Joe’s. There I was quickly immersed in a radical Catholicism that I had not previously known to exist. The archbishop, Raymond Hunthausen, was withholding 50% of his federal income tax to protest nuclear weapons. Pax Christi was organizing people into “affinity groups” who took a “vow of nonviolence” as part of a commitment to resist nuclear weapons. Young adults who had been Jesuit Volunteers were making career choices to serve the poor and reject consumerism, while having fun together. It was a whole new world! I was invited to participate in civil resistance at the Bangor Submarine Base, one of the two largest repositories of nuclear weapons in the US. Most folks are surprised to discover that “liberal” Washington is the most militarized state in the USA, thanks to a series of Democratic senators and representatives who saw military contracts as a substitute for the tradition of resource extraction that had been the base for the local economy. Once I had been “baptized” into resistance work, I could not go back.
I was invited to be part of the inaugural class at Seattle University’s new “Institute for Theological Studies,” now the School of Theology and Ministry. I had no idea what it would lead to, but enrolled to learn and immerse myself in the Christian tradition. I did an MDiv in three years; now most students do it in 6-8 years, but we didn’t know any better! Throughout that time, I continued to have no idea what “practical” outcome this course of study and reflection would lead to.
It wasn’t until I was done that a path emerged. A dear friend, long involved in nuclear resistance, had been to a retreat in Philadelphia led by a man named Ched Myers, and returned with a set of cassette tapes (!) of his talks. I was “schooled out” and declined the invitation to engage the recordings. But when the book, Binding the Strong Man, came out, I devoured it like a novel. Amid the excitement of discovering what I came to call the path of “radical discipleship,” I wondered: Is Mark’s Gospel specifically radical, or is it the reading method Ched used that exposed a latent radicality that might extend beyond Mark? As an experiment, I tried the method—which Ched called “socioliterary”—on what I saw as the most different text from Mark: the Gospel of John. The result was my first book, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Orbis 1994). While I was writing it, a group of us engaged John in community, having spent two years with Mark and BSM. That group, Galilee Circle, began what has since been a consistent practice of engaging scripture in community.
In the quarter century since, I’ve used my own method of reading, adapted from Ched’s, on Revelation and other texts, while continuing to seek ways to embody the radical gospel amid empire.
(2) “Come Out, My People!” is an incredible text. You cover the entire canon of Christian Scripture, as well as a good chunk of intertestamental literature, in 474 pages of text. I can’t even imagine trying to undertake a project of that scope (and then, in Empire Baptized, you cover 330 formative years in 298 pages of text!). Along the way, you come to many conclusions about how and why both the sacred texts and the early creeds of Christianity were composed (Pharaoh is modeled after Solomon and not vice versa, the Exodus didn’t really occur, Ezra and Nehemiah ain’t all they’re cracked up to be, let alone the vast majority of the so-called church fathers, and on and on it goes). These conclusions are bound to shock any given member of the general Christian public in the USofA. There’s a lot more power games and realpolitiking going on in the creation of these things than most of us have been led to believe. A good many readers may be scandalized or even alienated by wave after wave of this (even if a reader like me rather enjoys it all… but, in my case, you’re preaching to the choir and a lot of what you say is credible, to me because I’ve also studied a lot of this – although it was fun to read a lot of the OT stuff that I knew next to nothing about, so thanks for that!). So, I’m curious about what kind of reader responses you have gotten. How do students respond to these texts? Who did you write them for and what made you decide to write them?
Responses have been overwhelmingly positive, but maybe that’s because the people who would find it most difficult haven’t been exposed to the books and their basic premises. I’ve aimed over the years at a mythical “trivia” (in the original, literal sense) between the academy, the church and the public square (or streets). Come Out, My People! got solid academic reviews and also strong reviews from activists in Catholic Worker and similar circles.
Undergraduates at Seattle University have had little engagement with the Bible prior to taking a required “Core” theology course. About a third are some kind of Catholic, while most are in what we call here “the none zone”: raised without any particular religious formation, largely as a reaction against a previous generation’s having had religion forced on them. Few have been raised fundamentalist. Some are international students with Islamic or Buddhist backgrounds. It’s much easier engaging people who have few presuppositions about the Bible, God and Jesus than people clinging to what their mother or pastor told them! In my “God and Empire” course, we go through Come Out, My People! and end where Empire Baptized goes, with the Constantinian shift. Students generally can see the pattern of the “religion of empire” and the “religion of creation” in world history in specific encounters (e.g., with the “creation” centered indigenous peoples of North America vs. the “empire” centered conquerors and colonialists). At this time of year, a great approach is to contrast (following Richard Horsley) “the holidays” as an imperial celebration of capitalism with “the annunciation and birth of the messiah” as a creation-grounded counternarrative. Other examples abound.
My wife, Sue, and I also lead a monthly Saturday group that engaged Come Out, My People! over five years (in forty, five hour retreat/class sessions). That group was very diverse denominationally and in age, although not so much ethnically. The conversations that emerged showed Come Out, My People! to be very helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of how the biblical texts emerged as part of an ongoing argument among ancient scribes and what we would call “activists” over the nature of YHWH and what it meant to be YHWH’s people. That Jesus can clearly be seen to side with the religion of creation and to oppose the religion of empire clarifies the internal conflict within the Bible and how Jesus followers can claim the creation texts while rejecting—as Jesus did—the imperial texts.
(3) In both “Come Out, My People!” and Empire Baptized you argue that the Bible and then the early days of Christianity, are defined by the conflict between the “religion of creation” and the “religion of empire.” This is the central theme of your two-volume project. On the one hand, you take Jesus of Nazareth to be emblematic of the “religion of creation” – which you understand as being about peace, justice, liberation (from things like poverty and oppression, and structures of inequality), and rootedness within a particular space (i.e. being connected with the land, water, and air – as well as other creatures – in a way that is nonexploitive). On the other hand, you see people like Solomon, Ezra, Eusebius, and Athanasius as representatives of the “religion of empire,” wherein hierarchical, abusive, and destructive power structures are established and maintained in an ideology that encompasses all of heaven and earth. Things like patriarchy, urbanism, war, slavery, ethnic conflicts, exploitation of labour, and the destruction of other creatures, and of creation more generally, all fall into this latter category of religion. It’s a pretty damning presentation of much of the content of the Bible as well as of a great deal of the Christianity that has followed, not only in the 2nd to 5th Centuries CE, but up until the present day. In fact, all things considered, it seems that the bulk of Christian Scriptures, as well as the bulk of Christian history, falls on the side of the “religion of empire” (and you draw in a number of extra-biblical sources in “Come Out, My People!” to present a more thorough case for the “religion of creation”). Is that a fair presentation of how the material breaks down? If it is, why bother with it? Why not discard it for traditions that are much more fully aligned with “the religion of creation,” which you say is not exclusive to Jesus or various biblical or Christian traditions?
I haven’t done a count of texts and which point in the spectrum between creation/empire they fall, but there is a strong tradition of religion of creation texts that are, to me, sacred and powerful entry points. That the ancient scribes had the wisdom to include both sides of an argument shows, to me, incredible humility and tolerance for difference. This pattern continued in Jewish texts like the midrash, where rabbis engage multiple perspectives without either reaching a “right answer” (orthodoxy) or vilifying the “other” as the post-NT church writers were so fond of doing. We are in a historical moment where it is very hard for people to see the opposing view to their own as worth listening to. I find the religion of empire texts in the Bible fascinating, as examples of how people bent on domination and control can claim divine legitimation for their projects. I do not want to throw out the religion of empire texts, although they are not “scripture” for me. We do not learn and grow, whether as individuals or communities, by denying our shadow sides, but by exposing them to the Light. By seeing the monarchy and similar texts for what they are, they lose power over us, while remaining valuable artifacts of a pattern that can be found throughout history.
The religion of creation narrative in the Bible includes wonderful, often misread texts like Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, the prophets, 1 Enoch and other noncanonical apocalyptic texts. There is plenty there to generate both conversation and discipleship! At the same time, this paradigm invites into the conversation religion of creation texts from other traditions, especially indigenous ones. Jesus was, after all, an indigenous “shaman”: a mystical healer who offered to share his power with his followers for the healing/repair of the world, or in Hebrew, tikkun olam. Many others around the world and throughout time have shared a similar vision of a restored creation that provides abundantly for all creatures. There is no need to wall off the biblical traditions from others: that notion is a totally religion of empire impulse!
(3B) Talking about connecting with indigenous traditions and not walling off the biblical tradition from others, paired with your prior mention of spiritual experiences had via psychedelics (I can relate to this experience, although I don’t talk about that too much), as well as your later mention of Teilhard de Chardin’s writings about a cosmic consciousness (as per Question 6 below), makes me curious about how you identify and about how folks in your community (or communities) might identify you. Would you or others describe you as a “Christian”? How would you feel about being described in that way? After all, so much of the history of Christianity has been about marking off insiders and outsiders from one another (as one kind of Christianity tries to establish hegemony over all the other kinds… and everyone else as well), so I guess I’m kinda curious as to where you and your community/communities would locate you now (and why you would want to be located there).
I find myself moving away from identity labels as I get older. For over thirty years, I identified as “Roman Catholic.” While Sue and I attend and are active at our local Mennonite Church, I don’t call or consider myself “a Mennonite.” The history of the Mennonites is fraught with ambiguity and the current church is riven, like so many, over LGBTQ issues. I don’t find a need to claim identity with that tradition, although I do experience much blessing in our local congregation.
Working on Empire Baptized reinforced my sense that the label “Christian” is far too weighted by both history and current practice to offer strangers much sense of what I believe and how I try to live. While my Jewish identity is important to me, things like “Jews for Jesus” or “Messianic Jew” also carry connotations that don’t appeal to me. I’m happy claiming to be a Jesus lover and attempted Jesus follower.
(4) I also wonder about how sharply you draw the line between “the religion of creation” and “the religion of empire.” It seems to me that, despite their opposition to one another, there is a considerable amount of overlap, hybridity, and entanglement (to draw on the language of post-colonial scholars) between these two factions. I think some of this comes out in your surprisingly gentle presentation of Augustine in Empire Baptized (well, surprising to me, anyway, since I’ve also been pretty firmly rooted in the “Augustine was a death-dealing asshole” camp, so it was interesting to hear more about him as a moderate… even though I think you also do a good job of highlighting the very real limits of that kind of moderate position).
However, I want to pick up on Paul as a way to explore this. Your section on Paul in “Come Out, My People!” is quite short (as is the entire section relating to the New Testament which kind of surprised me given how central Jesus seems to be for your understanding of what comes both before and after). We are in agreement that, despite the imperial appropriation of Paul, Paul himself was likely very much on the side of the “religion of creation,” proclaiming a counter-imperial gospel amongst assemblies of people called to embody “God’s peace, justice, and love” (COMP, 455). However, I have been thinking more and more about how Paul’s subversion of imperial language, titles, and themes, really does seem to pave the way for the later non-subversive use of those same things. Paul, his co-workers, and the assemblies to whom he writes, are still embedded in the “religion of empire,” even as they seek to affirm the “religion of creation,” and their embeddedness there facilitates a smooth takeover by pro-imperial and pro-status quo parties as the movement grows. Shedding this embeddedness always seems to be an ongoing process for liberation movements (think, for example, of the struggle to rid the Black Panther party of patriarchy, which is replayed in the Zapatista movement during its early days). As Foucault (echoing two of his teachers, Mao and Sartre) suggests: we are so embedded in systems of violence and oppression, that even our best conceptions of liberation, justice, and peace are compromised. Yet, the general binary you present is sharp and clear and seemingly straightforward (even though things get a bit more complicated when you examine various characters).
However, when I think about how I might live in line with Jesus or this “religion of creation” today I get confused and I get overwhelmed by how complicit I am in the “religion of empire.” I want to “come out,” but I don’t know how. How have you come out? Would you say that you have? Because, for example, when you were criticizing a number of characters from the 2nd-5th century, you regularly noted how their scholarly work was intimately connected with wealth and patronage and imperial benefaction. I got thinking, “what a minute here, you’re a professor at a University in the United States of America getting paid to speak and read and write… and that sounds an awful lot like something you criticize about people like Jerome or Ambrose of Milan.” So, this call to “come out!” how does it work? I’m a big fan of the idea and nod along to your concluding line (“I hope and pray that if you got this far, you are ready to “come out” from imperial Christianity and to embrace the religion-of-creation Way that leads to life in abundance, for all people and all creation” [EB, 298]), but do you have any tips on how to actually put this into practice? Can you show me how this plays out in your own life?
So, three big questions here, which I’ll address separately: first , the “line” between the two religions, then Paul, and finally, how to “come out.”
While I present a binary opposition between the two religions, as you suggest, many texts in the Bible are hybrid, rejecting some while accepting other aspects of the religion of empire. For example, Third Isaiah (Isa 56-66) radically rejects the Ezra-Nehemiah “solution” to the exile: cast off “foreign” wives and children in the name of “pure seed” (Ezra 9). At the same time, as Australian scholar Mark Brett has pointed out, it envisions all coming to the imperial city of Zion/Jerusalem. We might compare this range of perspectives with positions today seen as “liberal” or “radical.” A liberal sees the evil of the current system and works for change within that system, while a radical rejects the system altogether. Similarly, the ancient scribes differed on how much of the Jerusalem-centered temple system could be retained. One reason a text like 1 Enoch isn’t in the biblical canon is because it was too radical, rejecting the temple altogether as “unclean” because of its relationship to empire. And, of course, that was one reason that the Jesus-centered texts became part of a “New” Testament: Jesus declares God’s judgment on Jerusalem and its system (e.g., Mark 13 and parallels).
Paul: No one, in my opinion, has done more to reveal the anti-imperial Paul than Neil Elliott, whom I know you also interviewed. If your readers don ‘t know his work, along with the three collections of essays on the anti-imperial Paul edited by Richard Horsley, that’s a good set of places to start.
Paul, like John of Patmos in Revelation, uses imperial language to subvert it. A key problem is that I am sure Paul had no idea that his writing would become detached from the concrete and specific contexts and people to whom he wrote and read by “Gentile Christians” with no knowledge of Israelite traditions or thought patterns. It’s as if a white colonialist took the words of a great indigenous shaman and interpreted them in their own cultural context, much like what has happened with “Chief Seattle.” The predictable outcome is a wild misinterpretation in service to the dominant status quo.
Was Paul a “pure” embodiment of the religion of creation? Of course not. First, we have to recognize that he had few conversation partners. He was among only a few early proclaimers of the Gospel of Jesus! Second, he did not shed his personality, which could be aggressive and arrogant. But like anyone else seeking to find the Way out of empire, he struggled to discover and to reject his own imperial formation. It’s a long journey.
Which leads to my own social location and struggle to “come out.” Well, I don’t have wealthy patrons like Origen; I’m a mere nontenured instructor, making less in real dollars than I did as a first year government attorney 37 years ago. But I’m not denying my embeddedness in imperial privilege along all the usual lines: (perceived as) white, male cishetero, educated, etc. I may not be a power player like Ambrose, but I’m certainly comfortable sitting here typing away in my nice little home on the edge of Tiger Mountain.
The only way to “come out” is in community. We simply cannot do it alone, and were never meant to. Both Paul and John the Revelator explicitly address their message to the ekklēsiai, the “assemblies” of the “called out” later known as “churches.” Both are critical of the temptation to accommodate and assimilate to empire, apparently with mixed success. The most radical story of this is the Exodus, where a multitude of slaves simply walk out! But it takes them a long, circuitous sojourn to get to “the promised land,” during which they argue, fight among themselves and with YHWH, and constantly want to return to “the fleshpots of Egypt.” In one of my favorite, satirical passages, we hear them ready to give up the exodus for the sake of condiments (Num 11)! While the gospels portray folks like Peter, James and John dropping their fishing nets and following, the ensuing narratives reveal them still captive to empire, all the way up to the resurrection. In fact, I think one of the most brilliant things about the New Testament gospels is their portrayal of the disciples as bumbling idiots, filled with ego and the imperial narrative they’ve been given. They are not shown as “saints” but as ordinary people who struggle to make sense of the call, just as we are doing here.
The call out is not to some illusory “purity” but to a what Luke calls the daily command to pick up one’s cross (Lk 9.23): that is, to see oneself as dead to imperial power and status. From that perspective, one can discern daily choices that lead, step by step, “out” into the realm of the Creator.
(4B) Okay, I like where this is going but can you give me a bit more of a detailed answer than this? I agree that it takes a community or ekklēsiai or group efforts to “come out,” but a lot of groups have tried to do this – or even claim to do this – but don’t seem to end up being that much different than the dominant culture. I remember realizing this when I was living a supposedly “radical” life as a founding member of an Intentional Christian Community in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. I learned pretty quickly that I could make a few shifts and gestures (all quite spectacular in the Debordian sense), like moving into a low income neighbourhood, sharing property and wealth, and inviting neighbours and folks experiencing homelessness and sex workers into my home… all while living essentially the same life as any other middleclass dude in the suburbs. But, even as I made that realization, people were heaping praise on me for being so radical and brave and blah blah blah when really I knew that I had hardly done anything at all ([rant] bougie white radical dudes like me tend to just make one or two minor adjustments in our life to be “more radical” than mainstream bougie white non-radical dudes, and then we set up camp and pat each other on the back and talk about how awesome we are… when really there’s a whole long road laid out before us – a via crucis, to pull on your reference to Lk 9.23 – that we’ve completely ignored. We go one step down that road, pitch our tents, raise our flags, and as long as we remain that one step ahead of all those other assholes, well, hey, we’re the best [end rant]). So what does “coming out” look like for the community of which you are a part? What does it actually look like to pick up one’s cross daily?
I’m not looking for “purity” or “perfection” in my discipleship. Rather, I seek to discern, moment by moment, what is the voice of the Creator God and what are other voices in me and around me. I think you sell yourself short in naming your own journey. The choices you made to live in community in an imperially marginal location are both meaningful and important. Sure, your and my privilege “sticks” and we can always choose to leave or quit, when others cannot so easily. But I deeply believe that each moment offers a choice that matters. The attitude we bring to daily tasks; whether we experience joy or despair, the choices of people we hang with, the way we gain and spend money: all of these are choices that matter and add up over time.
I don’t think it’s possible ever to come completely out of empire in our world. Bill McKibben noted decades ago that there is no real separation between “nature” and “society.” Similarly, the global economy has allowed empire to penetrate even the most remote outposts. A late friend and mentor, Jack Morris, SJ, lived in Uganda for years in the 90s. He noted how a beautiful black woman told him that she didn’t see herself as beautiful. Why? Because, according to TV which had recently entered her life, a woman had to wear red lipstick to be beautiful.
There is no pure place or pure life in our world. I don’t in any way hold my life as a model of discipleship. I, like you, try to make choices that embody what I believe. But hey, I’m typing this on a computer made by corporations who exploit the earth and the poor in gaining their materials, abusing their workers, etc. Jesus and Paul used Roman roads. But that’s not a reason not to seek to “come out” daily in ways both small and large.
Former CIA analyst and current radical disciple, Ray McGovern, says that people in their 70s are perfect candidates for doing radical civil disobedience, because their age gives them both gravitas and empathy (in contrast with young bucks who get written off). I’m 62. My time is coming to spend more time in jail and less typing.
(5) Speaking of places where the line sometimes seems to wear thin between the two religions you posit, and of places where all of this might play out, I want to pick up the topic of violence. It comes through very strongly in your texts (and your online presence), that you are a firm supporter of nonviolence and that you see this nonviolence as very intimately connected to the way of Jesus and the religion of creation. You constantly juxtapose the peace, nonviolent resistance, and refusal to harm or kill others, with the violence, warring, and killing of the religion of empire. In this regard, I believe that you have found a lot of inspiration in folks like the Berrigans, James Douglass, and MLK Jr. Hence, in response to the triumph of Trump you said, “the only solution is Love” and later wrote:
Now is not the time for bitterness and infighting. Trump would like nothing better than the usual response of the Left eating itself. Now is the time for taking a deep breath, regrouping, and continuing the fight for justice: in our homes, in our streets, in our workplaces, on the earth.
Coincidentally, this sounded to me a lot like what Trump himself said in his victory speech when he stated:
Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division; have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people.
Does the similarity between his words and your words concern you? Because it concerns me. Folks like Peter Gelderloos and Ward Churchill have done some pretty damning studies of nonviolence and how it often ends up (despite the best intentions of those who deploy it) supporting the dominant power structures, so this echo of language reminds me a lot of their words (cf., for example, The Failure of Nonviolence; Pacifism as Pathology; and How Nonviolence Supports the State).
Consequently, I want to push you on this point. In part because I very much honour those – like Geronimo, like the Zapatistas, like Huey Newton, like Toussaint L’Ouverture, like the Narodnaya Volya, and even like Nelson Mandela and Gandhi (Gandhi’s views on violence are very often misunderstood) – who resisted violence, colonization, slavery, and imperialism by any means necessary. However, I also push back, in part, because I think Jesus was more violent than is commonly recognized (I’ve written about that here, if you want some context for that remark). Beyond that, I think there is a considerable degree of violence even in the “religion of creation” voices found in the Bible (even if the violence is to be delayed and enacted only by God). The question, then, is if violence is ever always only an example of how even those who resist empire can become complicit in imperial practices dispite their best intentions, or if there are times when violence is appropriate. I tend to think the latter and I think folks like some of those I mentioned above demonstrate how violence can be used very well in the service not of Death but of Life.
However, I understand that for many of those living in the USofA that last line sounds exactly like the ideology of empire they are rejecting (it almost sounds like the line from Bush: “I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace”). Thus, I think Christian-lefties in the USofA are particularly poorly situated to be able to see that violence may, at certain times and places, have a purpose (disclosure: after L’Ouverture, I don’t think Jean-Jacques Dessalines erred in what he did; nor do I think Yakov Yurovsky was wrong in what he did when he followed in the footsteps of the Narodnaya Volya and ended even the possibility of Tsarism; nor do I think the Sonderkommandos who rose up and killed and died to destroy Crematorium 4 at Auschwitz did wrong – I lift my hands to all of them). These are conclusions I came to very reluctantly after many years firmly rooted in the same camp as you—and if I were in the occupied territories of the USofA, perhaps I would not have come to them (tangentially, this is why I think Paul was actually less violent, in practice, than Jesus – because Paul came from a very violent background, he wanted to make sure he never participated in something like that again). However, I think your position gives up too much – both in terms of what it might be able to accomplish if it expanded its purview, and in terms of who it then excludes from being participants in the “religion of creation” (here I side firmly with David Graeber over against what I take to be the left-splitting and -policing of Christopher Hedges). It seems to me that some of the most striking examples of contemporary movements that seem aligned with the “religion of creation” are far from exclusively nonviolent. Consequently, just as you open “Come Out, My People!” by reminding the reader that there has never only been a single thing called Christianity (but ever only been competing, conflicting, and overlapping Christianities), perhaps the same is also true of your monolithic religion of creation? Perhaps there are also competing, conflicting, and overlapping religions of creation? I’d love to hear you comment more about this.
You do like the “big questions,” don’t you, Dan?
First, on my comment vs. Trump’s call for “unity.” I was not and am not calling for “unity.” Let’s take this text from Jeremiah 6.13-15 as a conversation starter:
“For from the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not ashamed, they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the LORD.”
What I was calling for was the rejection of blaming, infighting and bitterness, not a false unity where there is none. Fear and bitterness are huge enemies of love and justice. If we are to stand in resistance, we must listen to each other, speaking the truth-in-love at all times. That means denouncing clearly the evils, while proclaiming and seeking to embody the Way of true peace, a peace which, in Johannine terms, the “world” can neither give nor take away (John 14.27; 16.33).
On the power of nonviolence: I’m not as well read on some of this as you are, Dan, but I’ve done my share of agonizing and reflecting on this. I completely reject the idea that nonviolence is not “effective.” Political scientist Erica Chenowith has definitely demolished the notion that nonviolence is not effective; see this link to her TED talk with charts and commentary; also her book, Why Civil Resistance Works. In a previous generation, the effectiveness of nonviolence was theorized and laid out with historical evidence in the three volume series by Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Neither Chenowith or Sharp are dewy-eyed hippies. They are practical social scientists engaging the evidence and concluding that violence is almost always less effective at inducing long-term social change.
Jesus was not stupid, you know? He understood all too personally the power of imperial violence. This is, of course, the “scandal” (in the sense of “stumbling block”) of the cross of which Paul speaks so eloquently in 1 Cor 1-3.
Having said that, I’m not about to judge people subject to death squads, disappearances, and torture for doing what they feel is necessary in their circumstances. In my own study and teaching of liberation theology in Latin America, I can only imagine the strength it took for Oscar Romero to remain committed to the Way of Love amid the horrors he saw, heard and touched daily. Yet he did remain so committed, which is why his name and legacy are honored and those who choose guerrilla violence are largely forgotten.
At the US Holocaust Museum—which includes an astonishingly honest portrayal of US government complicity—there is a diorama of the Jewish resistance in Vilna (see here), where people took up arms against the Nazis in what they knew was a futile gesture, not so dissimilar from their ancestors who led the rebellion against Rome in 66 CE. Who knows what I would do in such circumstances.
But I am NOT in such circumstances. Perhaps when the effects of climate change have become more widespread and hordes of refugees wander the globe, you and I both will be in such circumstances. Meanwhile, the Jesus’ Way of nonviolent Love remains the Word I seek to live by.
(5B) I certainly agree that nonviolence can be very effective. I’ve also engaged Chenowith and Sharp in my thinking and I believe they are important (although at times flawed) voices in the conversation. Where I think pacifism becomes pathological, to use Churchill’s term, is when nonviolence is said to always and everywhere be the most effective and only option for everyone. However, the respect that you show to folks who deploy a diversity of tactics when facing death squads, disappearances, and torture – be that in Latin America in the 1970s, Germany in the 1940s, or Palestine in 66CE – suggests that you also would not be so utterly devoted to nonviolence as to say it is what all people at all times in all circumstances should strive to do. Where I think we might disagree is on what time it is. Because you say we do not live in circumstances like those where you do not condemn violent actions, but it seems to me we do. Derrick Jensen builds a really compelling case for this in Endgame (mentioned below – it’s a book I think you would actually really like as I think you and Derrick have a lot in common, not the least of which is your mutual commitment to the religion of creation and your openness to experiencing the Spirit of Life/Creator/God/Whatever). Capitalism today is killing more people – and more of life as a whole –than any other time of human-inspired and -produced destruction in history. However, a lot of that is distanced from us if the “we” in which we find ourselves is simply middleclass, cishet, straight, white, settler, males… but I think our “we” should be defined much more broadly (and I reckon you think so, too – everyone nods along when Niemöller’s famous lines are quoted). I can’t imagine what else it would take to tell us we are in such times. Ferguson told us. Berta Cáceres told us. The Deepwater Horizon told us. Alan Kurdi told us. The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant told us. Subcommandate Marcos told us. The starving polar bears told us. Tamir Rice told us. Standing Rock is telling us. The Wet’suwet’en are telling us. The Gitxsan are telling us. Michelle Alexander is telling us. The temperature of the planet is telling us (this is just the very small tip of a very large iceberg but I think you get the point). So, how can one make the claim that we are “NOT in such circumstances”?
Your points, of course, are all valid and important. What I meant is that my street and my town are peaceful. No death squads prowl; no government agents (as far as I know!) are hunting me down. I’ve read Jensen, although not all he’s written. I won’t argue with his position, but I don’t claim it. Once one justifies violence, there is no line any more. The film, “The Mission,” has been very influential on me in this regard. Both Fr. Rodrigo and Fr. Gabriel know they will die if they resist the power of church-monarchy. Rodrigo goes down guns blazing; Gabriel goes down praying and leading worship. I claim Gabriel’s path. As he says to Rodrigo: “God is love. If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that, Rodrigo.”
(6) Finally, the theme of the hope for God’s triumph over empires, the restoration of a just peace, the healing of creation, and the vindication of the righteous, runs through the texts and voices of those whom you see as proponents of the religion of creation. Do we still have grounds for this kind of hope? Civilization, it seems to me, is an ever-expanding snake that is consuming everything (including itself), and won’t stop until everything (including itself) has died (I think Derrick Jensen nails this point in Endgame). The Just do not replace the Unjust. Instead, empires replace empires. And Marx was wrong, too – the collapse of capitalism (as he knew it) is not the advent of communism – it is the return of feudalism. Instead of moving towards justice or peace, we have only gotten ever more efficient at killing the land, the animals, the water, the fish, the air, the birds, the forests, the river deltas, even the mountains – and one another, too. Where, today, are our grounds to hope? What do you hope for? A Deus ex machina? The Messiah to come (again)? Life after death where all wounds are healed? Or what?
Hope, for me, is in the long haul. This means that it might not include humanity at all. We are a species that have evolved and adapted to a set of conditions on earth. Those conditions are now imperiled like never before. We might well not survive our own blindness and refusal of metanoia. But if we do, it will because Teilhard de Chardin was right: we will further evolve into cosmic consciousness, generating what he called “the noosphere,” i.e., a “cloud” of thought like the atmosphere that envelopes us all in the truth of Love. Evolution is not a “plan”; it is trial-and-error. We know the errors all too well. We have the choice at all times and in all places to wake up to the reality of our interconnectedness and true unity in the flow of matter and energy we call “the universe.” I have no prediction about how this will turn out.
Great interview, thank you. While humbly acknowledging my own privilege, I must nevertheless agree with Wes’ stance on violence. Interestingly, Dan’s struggle with the possibility of using violence seems to me to fall into a trap. When all else fails, when we are at some ‘endgame’, then violence may become necessary. This, I think, is what Walter Wink called the Babylonian myth of redemptive violence: when all else fails, when every option has been exhausted – then at last, we can resort that that which will save us viz. violent overthrow. And that is precisely what the Way of Cross rejects. But then Dan already knows this argument, but is somehow frustrated by it.
Hi, Kevin! Thanks for your response, I appreciate you engaging the conversation.
As you’ve guessed, I am indeed quite familiar with Walter Wink’s writings on violence. I think one of the problems with his approach (and with what you are expressing), is the flattening of critical thinking when it comes to understanding the nuances or diverse forms of what is called “violence.” Stated simply, there’s violence… but then there’s violence, ya know? 😉 What I mean by this is that we should spend more time thinking about the differences between a lot of what we call violence and treat as a single, univocal thing.
For example, when a very small group of people (let’s say the slaveholders in Saint-Domingue in 1791 — i.e. on the eve of the Haitian Revolution) engage in massive degrees of violence that they systematize in structures like slavery and capitalism, and masses of people are murdered, tortured, separated from their families, raped, etc., etc., etc., within the structures that these people build and from which they profit, then is that “violence” the same kind of thing as the “violence” of the slaves that rise up and fight and end up abolishing slavery? I would suggest that it is not. In fact, from a strictly etymological perspective, this second form of “violence” could very well be described as “redemptive” given that that word derives from the Latin “redemptionem” which was a word applied to buying back, releasing, or ransoming slaves.
If one were to draw this forward to our present context, it’s worth asking if the global violence maintained, supported, and advanced by a very small group of people (say the 0.1%) — violence that is annihilating entire areas of the world and entire groups of people, and has the potential to actually destroy pretty much all of life as we know it (I believe contemporary capitalism is the most violent society in human history, although much of that violence takes place out of our sight given our own location) — well, is this violence comparable to an act of violence against that 0.1%? Again, I would suggest that it is a very different kind of thing.
Still, if these historical type arguments are unconvincing (and if we have reacted to the imperial and colonial justifications of their own acts of violence to such an extent that we just can’t see how these things are different, since they use similar language to the kind of language I use) then I reckon an example closer to home may help make this point clear:
The violence of a man who is trying to rape a woman is not the same kind of thing as the violence a woman uses to fight off a man who is trying to rape her.
So, if we want to keep on using the same word (“violence”) to talk about all these diverse actions, then, yes, I believe there are times when violence is both useful and good.
Moving on to your point about Jesus’ rejection of violence in the way of the cross, I simply want to say two things. First, I think Jesus was much more violent than a lot of nonviolent types give him credit for being (I go into that in the link in the post above). Second, I mostly don’t believe people when they talk about the way of the cross because, as far as I understand it, nobody is walking that way. The way of the cross leads, inevitably (for Jesus), to a confrontation with the imperial and colonial elites who torture him and kill him. I don’t really see any Jesus followers doing that in our context so I kinda think they’re just finding a way to have their cake (a comfortable Western life) and eat it, too (claim to be followers of Jesus on the via crucis). If advocates of that approach were also ending up on crosses I’d find ’em a lot more credible.
I just got back to reading this and I greatly admire this discussion. Its good to get to know Wes better and I hope we may meet up again. I would enjoy reading a much longer exchange between both of you and maybe sometime y’all would entertain questions by other folks as well? I won’t ask anything silly like if either one of you would smother baby Hitler (or save him from drowning) but it would be informative to know if either of you has actually used violence on another person and what you think about that experience. Also I would love to read an interview of some of the folks at COSK in Portland and Eugene, any chance of that happening? Or maybe y’all could get involved in one of Wipf and Stock’s Symposiums? I am very interested in Wes’s response that his (or Jesus’, whoever)….teachings(?) are best encountered and lived out in ‘community,’ and I would like to read more about that too. Maybe Wes’s next book? Dan, as usual your questions and arguments are as compelling and insightful as always and really cause me to hanker after your upcoming book; although now I don’t know if I should join up with that new Love Family commune starting up North by Camano island or if its best to start compiling kill-lists for the vanguard of the revolution?
Here’s a little clip from “Crimes and Misdemeanors” with Woody Allen’s Rosenzweig/Fromm philosopher stand-in (*Spoiler—he kills himself in the end—Levy, not Woody, his kind of abuser is not the type). I wonder if you agree with Levy that we need a great deal of love to persist in life? Couldn’t hate, revenge, fear, or the will to power, also compel our being to persist in the world, even if hate alone can’t work towards the persistence of the World? (If in fact it can’t? Depending on what constitutes *world* and if one thinks it should persist?). That’s a sort of a “grain of the universe” type of question I reckon, which is sometimes just another way of sneaking god into the conversation that’s easier on some folks ears. But I’m not that interested in trying to get all the language down correctly anymore (although I wouldn’t smother baby Wittgenstein over it, but I might spank him with his soul-deadening Tractutus). I mean, you can kill all the Czars with bullet’s (or drown them in their bathtubs) but can you snuff out *Czardom* with pistols? (or is ‘Putin’ not an alternative spelling of Cesar?). Sometimes it seems like after all the killing gets done not much else changes but definitions and foot notes 🙁
Anyway sorry for rambling and since its unlikely anyone will be nailing me to a cross I’m looking fwd to part II. Blessings and obliged.