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Halden Doerge Charting Evangelical Futures in an Age of Empire: A Review of Evangelicals and Empire

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Bruce Ellis Benson and Peter Goodwin Heltzel, editors. Evangelicals and Empire: Christian Alternatives to the Political Status Quo. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2008. 336 pages.$22.79 paperback. Click on the image to purchase Evangelicals and Empire from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal


Perhaps the most difficult sort of book to review is the edited volume. Single-author volumes are generally purposeful, focused, and unified. An author, no matter how confused or mediocre, usually knows why she is writing and has a good idea of how she wants to do it. Edited volumes are another matter altogether. What single-authors are supposed to have by nature, editors must strive mightily to force into their volumes, and yet they must do so without leaving their own fingerprints on contributions to the volume. The book editor faces a much more arduous task than the author, at least on this front. The editor must corral her authors and strive to keep them on message, all the while treading lightly to make sure each essay is, in some sense, its own. This precarious process, this delicate art, is one that few have mastered, and as such, we see few truly stunning edited volumes. Inevitably, they tend to be nets cast into the sea, catching good and bad fish alike, and leaving the reader to sort them out. Rarely is a multi-authored volume of collected works truly unified, truly diverse, and truly interesting. 

It would be lovely to jubilantly proclaim that Evangelicals and Empire, edited by Bruce Ellis Benson and Peter Goodwin Heltzel, is that edited volume, the one that shatters the literary palisade encircling the genre. Alas, this cannot be. Readers hoping for an edited volume that avoids all of these unfortunate pitfalls will have to grit their teeth and wait for Godot a bit longer. Nevertheless, Evangelicals and Empire still gives the reader all manner of things to ponder and discuss.

In essence, the book engages the twofold task of exploring the empire theory of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri and seeing what might happen when a bunch of diverse thinkers try to figure out how evangelicals fit into this theory. But that is really only half of the story. In addition to investigating evangelicalism on the basis of Hardt and Negri’s theory, the book also gestures toward several distinctly theological and even evangelical challenges to the same theory. The book is at once an exercise in seeing what Hardt and Negri have to say about evangelicalism and what evangelicalism has to say to Hardt and Negri.

Here a word should be said about the essence of Hardt and Negri’s empire theory to which this book responds. In brief, Hardt and Negri’s argument centers on two key claims. The first claim is that despite the previous hegemony of the nation-state in the construction of biopower (the production and structuring of life itself—a term borrowed from Michel Foucault), global capitalism is forming a new hegemonic power structure masked in the shroud of economics. This movement toward hegemony via globalization is what Hardt and Negri tend to refer to as the growth of empire. Thus, empire is not just a way of naming the current heights of American international power but rather it points to an emerging global power structure of economic relations that is not tied directly to national borders or localized governing entities. The emerging global empire seemingly belongs to everyone and to no one.

The second main point that Hardt and Negri make about this emerging version of empire, however, is that it possesses an inherently oppressive and hegemonic nature. Over against the hegemony of emerging empire, they posit the multitude, a set of singularities that, while remaining singular, truly constitute a collective. The particularities, distinctiveness, and sheer otherness of humanity that are squelched and oppressed by empire may, according to Hardt and Negri, shift into a radical and liberatory force which stands against empire and heralds new political, social, and ecological possibilities for a “liberatory politics.”2

Now, determining what exactly this multitude might look like and where evangelicals might fit into this conceptual mix, or how they might bring a critical perspective to it, is Benson and Heltzel’s editorial goal. In light of Hardt and Negri’s theory, this volume attempts to describe both how evangelicals fit in this new global scheme and how they might call it into question and reshape it. The approaches taken to address these basic issues are varied throughout the book’s twenty-one essays, all of which merit at least some discussion.

The first thing that one notices about this volume is its departure from the standard collection of essays by white male theologians—the book is remarkable in its theological, racial, ethnic, national, and gender diversity. Indeed, the very diversity of the contributors points to an essential theme that spans the book, namely, the diversity of global evangelicalism. This suggestion that there can be no sweeping notion of how evangelicals stand vis-à-vis empire is a point that recurs throughout the volume. The majority of the essays proclaim that the radical diversity and fractured nature of evangelicalism precludes any such simplistic caricature.

The essays appear in three parts, which consider the present, past, and future of evangelicals and empire, respectively. While a thorough analysis of all of the essays is beyond the scope of this review, some comments are most definitely in order. As I hinted earlier, the essays do not quite boast the unity, focus, and consistency of quality that Benson and Heltzel clearly sought to achieve. The book starts out on an unfortunate note with Jim Wallis’s faux-prophetic critique of “George W. Bush’s theology of empire.”3 It is hard to see why it was felt that this essay needed to be included at all, let alone to stand as the flagship article of the book. Wallis’s well-worn jeremiad against former president Bush contributes nothing to the volume; it is dated and tells nothing about the place of American evangelicals in light of empire theory. The essay is cut and pasted from a five-year-old article that appeared in Sojourners. Why, one wonders, does this popularist essay from 2003 merit inclusion in a distinctly academic volume in 2008?

Fortunately, things get better as the reader keeps going. Helene Slessarev-Jamir and Bruce Ellis Benson’s chapter, “The Contested Church,” is a superb analysis of the many faces of evangelicalism; it offers numerous insights regarding the intersections of evangelicals and the current global reality. The third chapter, by Gail Hamner, also boasts many theological insights into Hardt and Negri’s proposal, but it tends to founder awkwardly when trying to connect their theory to an analysis of evangelicalism. Indeed, by her own admission, Hamner seems to know next to nothing about evangelicalism, as is clear when she notes her shock at meeting an evangelical pastor who wasn’t simply a right-wing parrot.4 Likewise, her passing references to how evangelicals’ unswerving position on abortion is likely reducible to their “rather uncontested misogyny”5 smacks of more highbrow pedantry than sincere analysis of the ethics of evangelicalism.

And with the next essay, “Betrayed by a Kiss,” things get infinitely worse. Charles W. Amjad-Ali and Lester Edwin J. Ruiz set out at the beginning to intentionally ignore Hardt and Negri’s work and then proceed to castigate evangelicals as infantile, pathetic, and stupid. The chapter is less than coherent, other than the clear presence of constant anger toward evangelicals. It hops from pontificating about the Puritan foundations of America to the agenda of nineteenth-century evangelicals who wanted above all else to “reverse the scientific move from a terreocentric to a heliocentric universe as articulated by Galileo.”6 According to Amjad-Ali and Ruiz, evangelicals are nothing more than ignorant pawns of American imperial pretensions, a cavalcade of childish ignoramuses who deserve nothing but scorn and derision.7 The chapter culminates with the authors getting down to what they really feel when they finally just come out and declare that “evangelicals are like Judas Iscariot, who, though he was at the table with his Lord [. . .] arranged with the imperial powers and their conspirators to sell his Lord for thirty pieces of silver.”8 At the end the essay, amusingly high on amped-up moral outrage, it devolves into little more than a juvenile barrage of insults.

The next few chapters are certainly superior to the preceding disaster. Jennifer Butler and Glenn Zuber’s essay on evangelical nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) lobbying at the United Nations proves to be informative and highly interesting. Underscoring the diversity of evangelicalism, the authors compare humanitarian ventures with more family values–oriented lobbyists, noting the differences of method and global impact. The international role evangelicalism will take in politics and social work remains to be seen, and this essay gives a clear and informative view of the possibilities.

The next two essays, by James K. A. Smith and John Milbank finally begin to take us into constructive theological engagement with Hardt and Negri’s proposal. Smith’s excellent essay takes issue with the role of libertarian freedom, proposing an Augustinian solution based on a more theologically robust notion of freedom as participation in God. The Milbank article, though recycled from elsewhere and boasting nary a footnote of any kind, remains a helpful contribution, presenting a resounding critique of economic and political liberalism and outlining his own much documented proposal of a distinctly Christian socialism.

At this point the volume shifts into a discussion of the past, comprising a series of fascinating historical reflections on the relationship between evangelicals and empire. Patrick Provost-Smith offers an interesting foray into the Spanish conquest of the Americas, looking at the notions of the evangelium and the imperium as alternative genealogies of the concept of sovereignty. Noting the prophetic opposition of Las Casas to the imperial ambitions of the conquistadors, Provost-Smith reflects on how evangelicals today can embrace the liberating message of the evangelium and reject the oppressive lure of empire. Sebastien Fath’s chapter offers an interesting look at the dissonance that lies at the heart of the American evangelical identity in regard to evangelicals stance toward imperial power. Amid this core evangelical contradiction is a history of postmillennial expansionism and optimism along with dispensational premillennialism that discourages putting trust in worldly powers. Fath, helpfully, if a bit inconclusively, probes the dissonance between neoconservative postmillennial optimism and the pessimism of dispensational premillennialism that populates so many evangelical churches, raising important questions about the way in which conflicting eschatologies inform different evangelical approaches to political action.

The remaining essays in this section are likewise quite thought provoking. Kurt Anders Richardson explores the connections between pneumatology and democracy, looking especially at the thought of statesman Roger Williams. Juan Martinez offers a well-crafted treatment of the formation of Latino evangelical identity in the United States, noting the radical differences between Hispanic evangelicals and their non-Hispanic white counterparts. The role that evangelicos will have in the future of evangelicals and their interface with empire is unclear, but Martinez’s essay definitely helps us understand the landscape of this much-neglected field of study in evangelicalism. The next essay, by Eleanor Moody-Shepherd and Peter Goodwin Heltzel, offers some reflections on the evangelical problem of race, looking at various movements within evangelicalism and exploring the potential of evangelicalism for addressing racialization in America. Next, Elaine Padilla and Dale T. Irvine offer a fascinating look at Pentecostalism and probe the question of where Pentecostals fit in an age of empire. The section closes with an interesting conversation (more like an interview, really) between Donald Dayton and Christian Collins Winn on the nature of evangelical identity and the relationship between evangelicals and empire.

Finally, we come to the last group of essays, those that take up the question of the future of evangelicals and empire. This section leads off with Mark Lewis Taylor’s approach to the challenge of Hardt and Negri to any concept of transcendence. Corey D.B. Walker then takes up questions of race, theology, and ethics in conversation with Charles Long’s work on the ethics of opacity, yielding an intriguing approach to theological thinking and emphasizing solidarity with the oppressed. Amos Yong and Samuel Zalinga then offer a thorough and engaging exploration of the potential for Pentecostalism to bring about social liberation and transformation in North America and sub-Saharan Africa. The essay yields both interesting engagement with and critique of Hardt and Negri’s theory, developed directly in relation to issues of praxis. Michael Horton next proposes a theological defense of “the secular,” largely drawing from the political theology of Oliver O’Donovan and Jeffrey Stout, which he believes will continue to illumine the path of evangelical politics even as we move into a world less controlled by states and more regulated by global economics. On the heels of this essay, Mabiala Kenzo and John Franke explore the nature of evangelical theology under the conditions of empire, which they contest must exhibit a distinctly postcolonial and postfoundational character. Unfortunately, their argument constitutes little more than a rehash of what Franke has published elsewhere on his proposals for a postfoundational evangelical theological method, and the essay has little if anything to do with engaging Hardt and Negri’s proposals. Paul Lim presents a fascinating critique of evangelicalism under the rubric of Constantinianism, questioning evangelicalism’s alliance with the state in American politics. Finally, Mario Costa, Catherine Keller, and Anna Mercedes offer a profound essay on what it might mean to think of love as a form of theopolitics in a time of empire. This essay, arguably one of the best in the book, deeply probes the nature of love and politics, exploring the interstices of agape and eros and ultimately generating a “kairotic erotics”—a theopolitics of love that constitutes a creative rupture, a generative disturbance of peaceable possibility. Out of all the essays in the volume, it is the most suggestive for a theologically thick theopolitics centered in love.

The book concludes with reflections on the essays by Hardt and Negri themselves. In essence, it seems that Hardt and Negri are quite interested in the way in which their work has been engaged and how the contributors have explored the connections between their work and evangelicalism. However, one also gets the distinct sense that, while perhaps interested in the work this volume has done, they don’t really take it all that seriously. Nowhere in their response do they take the time to respond in any sustained sense to the critiques of their work, particularly avoiding any real engagement with James K. A. Smith’s incisive critique of their understanding of freedom. In the end, one is left wondering if Hardt and Negri are interested in evangelicals or anyone who believes in a transcendent God of any sort being a part of their liberatory multitude.

There is certainly much that can be said in response to this book. As I mentioned previously, this volume like nearly all edited volumes is a bit hit-and-miss. What is clear, however, are the lengths to which Benson and Heltzel clearly went in order to explore the questions surrounding evangelicals and empire. Their work of acquiring diverse contributors, raising relevant questions, and probing this thorny problem is truly to be celebrated. Many of the essays will without question have enduring value as the current global reality continues to unfold.

One of the most interesting, and perhaps ironic, elements of this work lies in the interplay between its subject matter—empire—and the time of its publication—after the iconic imperial culprit, George W. Bush, is out of office and America swells with hope around President Obama. Some readers will feel that the book has been published too late. After all, much of the rhetoric of empire in the United States centers squarely on leftist critiques of the Bush administration. And although many critiques of this sort are found in this book, the presence of far more substantive content, and the fact that this book was published in the waning days of the Bush administration, points us beyond the predictable and rote critiques of empire that have flown off the bookshelves since 9/11. Could this book herald serious theological engagement with the questions of empire in a post-Bush era? Will it play some sort of role in generating momentum for serious theological reflection on globalization, structured oppression, and neoliberal economic tyranny in ways that go beyond self-satisfied castigation of American neocons? One certainly hopes so. Indeed, it may well be that a book like this, which many potential readers will doubtless assume is simply a collection of anti-Bush polemics, has actually come at just the right time. The global ambitions, both political and economic, which Bush awkwardly stumbled after through chicanery and military adventurism have a far more likely chance of being actualized under the rule of an intelligent, polished, and internationally embraced figure like President Obama. It may well be that in a post-Bush age, critiques of empire are of far more pressing necessity.

Ultimately, although this book suffers from the handicaps of all edited volumes, it shines in far more places than it stutters. Thus, it is a book to be engaged, discussed, and welcomed among Christians concerned for authentic theopolitical engagement with the contemporary world.


Notes
1. Bruce Ellis Benson and Peter Goodwin Heltzel, “Introduction,” in Evangelicals and Empire: Christian Alternatives to the Political Status Quo (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2008), 11–12. All further references are to this volume. 

2. James K. A. Smith, “The Gospel of Freedom or Another Gospel?” 89–90.

3. Jim Wallis, “Dangerous Religion: George W. Bush’s Theology of Empire,” 25–32.

4. M. Gail Hamner, “Acting in Common: How the Flesh of Multitude Can Become Incarnate Words against Empire,” 48.

5. Ibid., 51.

6. Charles W. Amjad-Ali and Lester Edwin J. Ruiz, “Betrayed by a Kiss: Evangelicals and U.S. Empire,” 60.

7. Amjad-Ali and Ruiz pull no punches in their awkward but virulent salvo, calling evangelicals blasphemous, Manichaean, docetic, and anti-Catholic sophists, who explicitly deny the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds (65). To be honest, I couldn’t help but chuckle in noticing that they quote the standard of creedal orthodoxy, which evangelicals apparently fail—by making the Bible a fourth member of the Trinity—as “three personae and one ousia.” Personae of course comes from the later Latin formulation of the Creed and was paired with substantia as a translation of the Greek words hypostasis and ousia, respectively. Apparently Amjad-Ali and Ruiz need to work on not conflating their Greek and their Latin in flippantly quoting creedal slogans. Ranting leads to carelessness.

8. Ibid., 66.

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Halden Doerge :
Halden Doerge is the book review editor for The Other Journal, an editor with Wipf and Stock Publishers, and a member of the Church of the Servant King in Portland, Oregon. He blogs at http://inhabitatiodei.com.