Theologians tackle challenge of 'empire' to churches and social justice

By staff writers
16 Jul 2007

An international group of theologians met recently at Luther Seminary, St Paul, Minnesota, USA, to develop critical theological responses to 'empire' in the context of a divided and unequal world.

'Confessing and Living Out Faith in the Triune God: Being the Church in the Midst of Empire,' was the title of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) seminar that brought together 20 theologians from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and South America.

They discussed papers as part of the 'Theology in the Life of the Church' initiative of the LWF Department for Theology and Studies (DTS). Luther Seminary hosted and provided partial support for the gathering at the end of last month.

Participants, comprising lay and ordained teaching theologians and doctoral students, observed that although various empires have existed over the centuries, there is an ever-increasing sense of the United States of America being and acting like an empire today. This is why this seminar met in this context.

"From the outside, Christians in the USA seem mostly silent and complicit with the assumptions and policies of empire, reinforced by expressions of religiosity that facilitate the imposition of 'empire'," said LWF/DTS director Karen Bloomquist.

Disturbing features of empire today were noted, such as the unlimited quest for power and profit and the avoidance of accountability, and, according to Deenabandhu Manchala of the World Council of Churches, how the powers of empire co-opt structures and cultures. Nation-states increasingly are subservient to corporate powers, added Cynthia Moe-Lobeda of Seattle University (USA).

Evangeline Anderson-Rajkumar, United Theological College, Bangalore (India) pointed to the interconnectedness between patriarchy and empire, with Margaret Obaga, a Kenyan graduate student at Luther Seminary, describing how African immigrant women in Minneapolis/St Paul find themselves trapped between these two powers.

Charles Amjad-Ali, Luther Seminary, analyzed how a particular kind of evangelical theology has provided support for the American empire. Yet as others underlined, theology can also provide the basis for resisting empire.

Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, University of St Thomas, St Paul (USA), highlighted the importance of anti-imperial and non-violent streams in the Bible. In assessing the challenges posed for Lutheran theology, Guillermo Hansen, ISEDET theological college in Buenos Aires (Argentina), described how empire makes fundamentalism and totalitarianism more attractive. He added, and others concurred, that a theology of the cross is "at the heart, * not at the margins, of this issue."

Peter Lodberg, Aarhus University (Denmark), pointed to "the inverted Messiah" - with Jesus being identified not with the highest in society, the sovereign, but with the lowest - as a criterion for countering empire. Gary Simpson, Luther Seminary, called for "repentant patriotism."

The need to cultivate church identities and practices that are alternatives to empire was repeatedly emphasized, with Cheryl Peterson, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio (USA), proposing an ecclesiology that begins with how the Spirit shapes the churchâs identity.

South African Johannes Swart, Luther Seminary, spoke of an ecclesiology in which belonging is constituted through the "otherness," while Michael Hoy, St Louis, Missouri (USA), set forth criteria for discerning when the church faces a time for confessing, when the gospel itself is at stake.

The LWF book proposed under the title "Being the Church in the Midst of Empire" is planned for publication later in 2007.

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