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Enemies of Empire?

Written by geoff holsclaw : January 28, 2008

Mark’s wonderful recent post “is America an Empire” has stirred the waters quite well. So I thought I would wade into the swirling poorl and talk a bit more about Empire and Enemies. For the idea that the Empire is our Enemy didn’t seem to sit well with some readers. “Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies?” “Should the Church really understand itself as having enemies, such as the State or Empire?” “Isn’t this dangerous exclusionary language?”

To such questions I would answer, the State/Empire is the enemy because it is an enemy of Repentance. It is impossible for the State to repent. And conversely, repentance is resistance to Empire.

It is all the rage among liberals to point out the pathological nature of President Bush, that he is incapable of admitting error in his decision to go to war with Iraq (among many other decisions). But I would say this is not some idiosyncratic pathology particular to Bush. Rather, the presidency as such and the entire State apparatus IS constituted pathologically, requiring a subjective commitment to its current form. As the French political philosophy Alain Badiou says, “It’s simply not true that you can participate in a system as powerful and as ramified as parliamentarism without a real subjective commitment to it…In order to participate in electoral or governmental representation, you have to conform to the subjectivity it demands.” And I would say part of this ‘subjective commitment’ to the State entails the inability to show the weakness of repentance.

The inability to practice repentance requires that the Enemy is always something else, somewhere else, and someone else. Perhaps the Enemy has crossed our borders (as illegal immigrants and terrorists), but conceptually/ideologically the Enemy is always outside the State. After 9/11, it was impossible for the USA to repent of the American Dream, to repent of it consumer habits, or repent of its tacit domination of the developing world (or should we say, kept from developing world). Indeed, President Bush only reasserted this commitment to consumerism when he told the nation to go out shopping to show our Enemies that we will not be defeated.

But for Church, the Enemy is always lurking within, clawing at the doors of our heart, and in fact, always already part of us. In the practice of repentance the Enemy is named, acknowledged, and turned from. Only in repentance is a gap and a division opened, into which God can act, between what we are and what we are becoming. Only in the weakness of repentance do we admit we are powerless to change anything. And it is for all these reasons that the Powerful do not (can not) repent. And for this, the State must be understood as an idolatrous Enemy.

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Comments

8 Responses to “Enemies of Empire?”

  1. Mark Dixon on January 28th, 2008 11:12 am

    It is one thing to say that State/Empire does not and can not repent, it is quite another to say that the Powerful do not and can not, because the Powerful are people, not an impersonal governmental Machine. I understand your logic, and as a recovering alcoholic I understand why true repentance includes admitting we’re powerless to change anything (it’s the first of the Twelve Steps of AA, and some would say the most difficult of the twelve.) It may be as difficult and unlikely as the proverbial camel squeezing through the eye of a needle; indeed, the powerful and the wealthy tend to be the same folks. But I’m reluctant to believe that any human heart is irredeemably beyond repentance, or beyond the reach of Jesus.

  2. Mark Van Steenwyk on January 28th, 2008 11:17 am

    The wealthy man had an opportunity to divest of his wealth (making it easier to pass through the eye of that needle). The powerful cannot repent unless they admit their powerlessness. At that point, they are no longer powerful.

    Repentence here has little to do with personal guilt. It has to do with change. Life change. Thought change. When Jesus started his ministry, he started with a message of repentance. And then, at least in Matthew, launched into the sermon on the mount. This is where he describes the world as we must see it. You cannot hold onto power and embrace the sermon on the mount.

  3. Mark Dixon on January 28th, 2008 12:15 pm

    Looking at it that way, Mark, I agree. It’s the pearl of great price… we must be willing to give up everything (including power and wealth) to gain the Kingdom.

  4. Nathan on January 28th, 2008 1:13 pm

    “After 9/11, it was impossible for the USA to repent of the American Dream, to repent of it consumer habits, or repent of its tacit domination of the developing world (or should we say, kept from developing world). Indeed, President Bush only reasserted this commitment to consumerism when he told the nation to go out shopping to show our Enemies that we will not be defeated.”

    I don’t know that it was impossible, only that it would have been extremely difficult. Bush could have a had JFK going-to-the-moon moment if he had asked the nation to sacrifice in order to achieve energy independence, greater foreign aid or a more robust diplomatic presence. He could have done this because it was in those days immediately following 9/11 that the utter impotence of the US (and any state, for that matter) was revealed. I think the majority of Americans recognized our collective powerlessness and there could have been something of a sea change in our culture. Would it have been complete? Would it have been particularly long lasting? I don’t know. But it wasn’t impossible, if only for a time. Now the veil has settled again and the nation is comfortable with the illusion of grandeur once more.

  5. geoff holsclaw on January 28th, 2008 3:19 pm

    mark d.,
    yes in a sense you are right. I guess in that sentence I was thinking of institutional Power (as in the office, not person, of the president). I agree that no person is outside the possibility of acting in repentance. But my statement still stands that it might be impossible for the office of the president to repent, although the person who is currently the president probably does repent of somethings. But it is kinda like the Pope speaking ‘ex cathedra’. Not everything the Pope does or says is infallible, but when he speaks ‘ex cathedra’. Similarly, when the President speaks as the Representative of the State, it is very improbably that he would repent of anything.

    So, to Nathan’s comment…
    while Bush could have acted courageously and called us to energy independence (which would have been great and definitely possible), that would not be the same as repenting. We could act toward energy independence all the while feeling victimized by those evil terrorists. So neither did Bush call us to energy independence, nor did he do the even harder thing of not playing the victim and taking responsibility as a nation. He didn’t repent as the President for how former Presidents basically created the enemies (Hussein and Bin Laden) that are attacking us.

  6. Nathan on January 28th, 2008 4:17 pm

    I was not intending to say that moving towards energy independence would be, in itself, repentance. Rather, it would be an indication of a changed heart and a reevaluation of the present condition. Repentance is not just an internal “heart” issue, but requires action and engagement. If Bush had said “we created the conditions that led to this attack and we need to change the way we act in the world”, we would all agree those word would be meaningless if things were business as usual.

  7. Geoff Holsclaw on January 28th, 2008 4:27 pm

    ah, yes. quite true. but the second part of your proposed repentance would actually ‘mean’ something quite different without the first part. It would shift from an admission of guilt to mere defensive posturing.

    While again, I fully support the need for energy independence (but not for national security reason, but environmental reasons), it seems possible that America could still perpetual its dominance of foreign affairs even while having lessened its interests in oil production.

    I could be like an abusive father who feels good about not beating his children anymore, but then stops feeding them.

  8. Michael Cline on January 29th, 2008 9:23 am

    Great article Geoff! I recently met with a seminary student going into military chaplaincy. We talked a few long hours about the requirements automatically placed on you upon entering military service, and whether or not these were possible to be “gotten around” by the Christian chaplain. Quite surprisingly, we decided that there were several areas where the U.S. has given chaplains the freedom to act in truly Christian ways (freedom that would not be afford if the person was say, a front line Marine). HOWEVER, at the end of the discussion, it became quite apparent to the both of us that the in/out language of enemy vs. us could not be dissolved. It was an expectation even of the chaplains to participate in such group think. They could not bring themselves to “chaplaincy on behalf of the enemy” but for our troops. The empire requires absolute subjective (oxymoron?) commitment to the state, not to the other. And that is where I got off the train

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