Tikkun Magazine

Toward a Counter-Imperial Faith

Christians and Muslims join together in protest, Tahrir Square, Cairo, March 2011. Creative Commons/Erik N.

Christians in Egypt joined with Muslims during the February 2011 protests that drove U.S.-backed Hosni Mubarak from power. Will U.S. Christians now find the courage to follow their lead and stand with the pro-democracy movements in Egypt, Libya, and beyond?

I am doubtful; nevertheless, I dare to hope for the emergence of a U.S. Christian practice of counter-imperial faith — for those times when Christians will need courage to challenge the United States’ geopolitical aims.

Struggle still lies ahead in Egypt, since many of the country’s U.S.-trained military officers remain responsive to U.S. geopolitical aims in Western Asia. Some fear the military could anchor what international politics professor Richard Falk called “Mubarakism without Mubarak.”

As pro-democracy struggles become protracted and continue to unfold throughout North Africa and the Middle East, U.S. geopolitics will need challenging. Not every problem in the region can be chalked up to U.S. influence. Still, hard questions need asking. Will the United States support emancipatory processes for popular masses in the region, or try to remain the hegemon it has long been, often sacrificing emancipatory change for its own geopolitics of oil pricing? Today, U.S. policies for dealing with Muammar Gaddafi and with what Vijay Prashad terms “the Libyan Labyrinth,” depend more on the geopolitics of oil and of controlling “terrorism” than on a principled concern about Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime and the suffering of people in Libya.

My concern here is whether and how U.S. Christians will find the courage to challenge our country on any of these issues.

I share some of the cynicism that greeted my recent column, “The Christian Question,” which provoked many readers to ask if U.S. Christians would ever really resist the U.S. push for dominance in Western Asia, especially if this required controversial stands against our own country’s failure to check Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Perhaps only some major crisis can awaken U.S. Christians from uncritical allegiance to U.S. geopolitics.

Yet, amid my cynicism, I also expect more from U.S. Christians.

Here’s why: Many Christians remain humans with hearts not immune from compassion, even from revulsion, when learning of their own nation’s imperialism. Christians can respond, as occasional U.S. soldiers do, and Israeli ones, too, by deciding to resist cooperating with military machines that serve unjust policies.

Melbourne Protest

Christians and Muslims in Melbourne, Australia, protest in solidarity with Egypt's Uprising. February 4, 2011. Creative Commons/Takver.

But beyond sanguine trust to compassionate hearts, some Christians are reframing what it means to be Christian, so that rejecting U.S. global designs — and even resisting its support of Israel’s occupation of Palestine (see the Palestinian Christian Kairos document) — become intrinsic to Christian faith and practice.

Consider Jesus. We are a few weeks from the high point of the Christian year, “Passion Week,” the time of Jesus’s entry into turbulent Jerusalem at Passover, commemorating the Hebrew people’s deliverance from Egypt’s pharaoh. It was amid this remembrance of liberation that Jesus met his crucifixion, the torturous death reserved to those who challenged imperial order in Rome-dominated Judea/Palestine.

The Christians’ holiest week, then, is a time for Christians to risk a faith that remembers and seeks liberation. As Michael Lerner wrote during Egypt’s protests, the Passover story of liberation predisposes many Jews to “side with those struggling for freedom around the world.” This Jewish Jesus should also orient Christians to yearn for all peoples’ freedom from domination.

But will U.S. Christians yearn and work for the liberation of Arabs and Muslims? Historian Robert Allison writes in The Crescent Obscured that U.S. publics have a long history of instinctively pitting their national self-understanding against a conjured Muslim and Arab “despotism.” In spite of key contributions to the United States by Arabs (Christian and Muslim) and Muslims, a history of public suspicion toward both (both being seen as “other” to a “Christian America”) often stifles Christian solidarity with them.

This failure of solidarity is profoundly contrary to the way of Jesus. Jesus was of Jewish heritage and faith, and as a man of Palestine he shared life with and respected many around him — Jewish, Arab, and others. Gospel writers say he celebrated peoples’ faith in places thought outside his own Jewish world, in Sidon and Syrophoenicia (now Lebanon and Syria). Aligning oneself with Jesus, then, means participating in the life of a Jewish figure of Palestine, in whom Jews, Arabs, and all peoples share a common struggle against the powers ruling and dividing them. Christian Palestinians are one powerful witness to this Jesus of all peoples.

The basic reason Jesus often crossed the boundaries between peoples, and then found himself in tension with imperial power — which led to the cross — was that his criterion of care was simple human need: hunger, thirst, lack of clothing and shelter, imprisonment, and suffering amid systems of hatred and exclusion.

Living by this criterion of care — call it “prophetic spirit” — resonates with traditions of Jews, Muslims, and many other people of conscience. This spirit is what placed Jesus among the killable of his time. Prophetic spirit risks much, sometimes everything, in its struggle for all peoples and creation. This is the “way of the cross.” Christians can also experience it, though, as life and freedom, because it is a route along which they strengthen humanity’s larger emancipatory struggle.

Do U.S. Christians participate in the life and freedom of their own founder’s way? Do they risk embracing an adversarial politics of resistance like that which marked Jesus’ practice? When the gospels referred to Jesus as “savior” (sōtēr), this was in itself a politically adversarial act, since the term was so often used for Caesar Augustus.

Can U.S. Christians embrace the dramatic action that gospel writers found in Jesus — evident in his embracing the tumult of Passover where memory and hope weighed heavily in Palestinian and Jewish hearts? Using parables, touching the untouchable, and overturning tables of corrupt money-changers — this was a life of action for “binding the strong man” (the title of a book by Ched Myers), whether that strong man be of empire or religious chauvinism. How do U.S. Christians participate in that life?

The way of Jesus also spawned movements rivaling imperial power. These, too, can mark Christians’ counter-imperial faith today. The early Jesus movement was so effective that sociologist Rodney Stark described the early growing popularity of Christianity (prior to its rise as the imperial religion) as significantly due to ways it “prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations,” especially for those abused by imperial powers.

So, yes, amid my cynicism, I hope U.S. Christians will embrace a practice of counter-imperial faith, even to rival their own nation’s will to power. Maybe it is being birthed anew in those places where Arab protestors labor on, inviting Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others to meet in struggle. We do well, also, to seek this counter-imperial faith on the towns and streets of the U.S. hegemon itself, where it lies often hidden in communities, among peoples here, who suffer the empire but not without aspirations and work for deliverance.

Mark Lewis Taylor is a professor of theology and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. His 2011 book is The Theological and the Political: On the Weight of the World. His book-length treatment of Christian faith amid U.S. imperialism, imprisonment, and torture is The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America (2001).
tags: Christianity, Egypt, Global Capitalism, War & Peace