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Unveiling Empire: Ecclesial Resistance to Global Capitalism

Author: David Pritchett
Published: February 2013

MD 4.1

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

This essay argues that globalism retains the same qualities that defined ancient and modern empires. The all-pervading boundarylessness of capitalist enterprise is analogous to the Rome of Paul’s day, and in his first letter to the Thessalonian church Christians can find and appropriate his advice for living in the midst of empire. The virtues required of disciples today to live faithfully in empire are a reimagination of the vows taken by St. Francis: obedience, poverty, and chastity. By taking on these disciplines, followers can begin to root out the ways empire makes claims on their lives and resubmit themselves to the way of Jesus.

Hans Christian Andersen’s story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” is a familiar tale to most Westerners.  The story goes that a monarch with a penchant for finery searches for the most luxuriant, expensive clothing he can find.  In the midst of his shopping about for tailors who can fulfill this aristocratic need, he is approached by two such craftsmen promising to sew the most lavish linens possible.  The plot of the story turns upon the clever assertion of the tailors, that the clothing remains invisible to those either unworthy of their office, on the one hand, or those, on the other, who are mere fools.  Thus, as the swindling tailors daily pretend they are busy at work sewing a fine suit, the king and his court dare not question the invisible clothing, for such would be a confession of foolishness and unworthiness.  Finally, the tailors announce that the suit is ready and mime the dressing of the king, who then parades about the streets in the nude.  The matrix of pride and self-deception work their magic not only in the emperor’s court, but also in the streets, and the crowds of people proclaim their amazement at the finery of the monarch’s attire.  However, the spell is finally broken by a child, who, unburdened by the need for social standing, shouts that the emperor is indeed naked.  Once the elephant in the room has been spoken, the crowd’s whispers turn into a roar as they all guffaw in amazement at the emperor’s narcissistic nakedness.

Our world is in a state of undress much more insipid and tyrannical than the blunderings of the monarch in Andersen’s story.  Indeed, the fabric of globo-capital enterprise stands as the new empire, having neither boundary nor regulation. However, the ideology of this new empire stays true to the old story; globo-capitalist culture retains the character ascribed to ancient Rome by the historian Tacitus:

Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.1

In our day, global capitalism displays similar disregard for both peoples and land. For instance, in 1995, pharmaceutical company Pfizer tested their drug Trovan on children in Kano State, Nigeria.  Half of the patients in the study were treated with ceftriaxone, the gold standard treatment for meningitis, and the other half were given the experimental drug Trovan.  After eleven children died in the trial (and the ethics of such drug trials on children notwithstanding), parents claimed they were not informed that their children were being treated with an experimental drug.2 Pfizer, claiming their practices were ethical, fought the suit in court, and, according to a Wikileaks cable, investigated the prosecuting attorney in order to pressure him to stop the legal action against the drug company.3

An even more disturbing example of corporate misdeed is that of the technology firm, Foxconn Electronics, which builds parts for Apple iPads as well as Hewlett-Packard printers.  Reports reveal the firm hung netting around the dormitories where company employees sleep, in order to discourage suicide attempts.4  While no one can say for certain why fourteen workers jumped to their death in 2011,5 it may have to do with hours worked by employees, some of whom worked over 100 hours of overtime in one month.  In light of this, Foxconn’s tripartite business philosophy, consisting of “efficient ‘Total Cost Advantages,’” “revolutionizing the conventional inefficient electronics outsourcing model,” and “devotion to greater social harmony”6 seems rather weighted against the latter. The “revolutionizing model,” it seems, is a suicide machine.

In the first part of this essay, I further articulate how global capitalism functions as empire, engaging secular philosophers, political theorists, and theologians. In the second section of the essay, I suggest that in the writings of Paul we have resources to engage empire. Finally, I will suggest a theo-political response to our current situation of empire for disciples, including some suggestions for a post-imperial missiology.

Naked Empire

A sculpted relief at Aphrodisias in Asia Minor symbolically shows the power and terror of the Pax Romana. The relief features a male figure framing the top of the sculpture, nude, with the exception of a helmet on his head and a cape billowing behind him. On the ground below him lies a woman, right breast bared, hips on the ground, and torso raised. The male is grabbing her head with his left hand, and appears to be violently holding it up; his right arm is raised, and, though the relief is broken, appears to have been wielding a sword. The figures are identified as the Emperor Claudius and the woman as the nation of Britannia, Rome’s most significant exploit during his reign.

Of course, in this setting, the emperor’s nudity shows not his incompetence, but rather his heroic strength.7 The relief makes clear through its hierarchical imagery the power of Rome, embodied in the emperor himself. Thus, above is to below as man is to woman as Rome is to the nations as conqueror is to conquered.8 Further, the partial nudity of both figures, man and woman, suggests undertones of sexual violence. In this instance, the rape of Britannia is both figurative and literal; as Tacitus tells us, one of the grievances the woman warrior Boudicca names against the Romans is that “nowadays Roman rapacity does not even spare our bodies. Old people are killed, virgins are raped.”9 As I intend to show in the following section, the rape of Britannia described above reveals the lust for domination lying at the heart of empire.

While empire is a term frequently employed in political and philosophical discussions, it avoids easy definition. Political scientist Herfried Münkler describes a few characteristics of empires, analyzing empires from ancient Rome to modern nation-states:

First, “Imperial boundaries . . . involve gradations of power and influence”: that is, there is a structural difference between imperial and nonimperial space.

Second, “Imperiality . . . dissolves . . . equality and reduces subordinates to the status of client states or satellites”: that is, international relations are not between equals, but between a “center” and a “periphery.”

Third, “Most empires have owed their existence to a mixture of chance and contingency”: that is, there need not be a “will to empire” (i.e., “imperialism”) or a “grand strategy,” but rather, a series of circumstances that lead to increased power and control of people and/or territory.

Fourth, “The capacity for reform and regeneration . . . makes an empire independent of the charismatic qualities of its founder (or founding generation)”: that is, there is temporal continuity that transcends the original situation that generated the empire.

Fifth, “An empire cannot remain neutral in relation to the powers in its sphere of influence”: that is, it cannot allow either independence or nonparticipation without retaliation.10

These five aspects provide a good frame for descriptive purposes; however, they fail insofar as they do not account for nonpolitical entities which still exert massive control over economics and the daily lives of individuals.11 For instance, a corporate entity such as Google might compete for power in its technological sphere, similar to characteristic number five above, but it would require semantic bending to assert that Google has “client states.” Because of this, philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri assert that empire of today is unlike Rome in that it has no centralized government or military power; this is why the United States, despite its military strength, cannot control the Middle East or other parts of the globe.12

Political and corporate lines increasingly blur in today’s world. This was manifestly clear when, on the evening after the attacks on the World Trade Center, then President George W. Bush declared to the world, “the American economy will be open for business.” The subtext of such a statement is that “you can’t hurt us as long as people keep buying,” which reveals that true power lies in corporate stocks. In poorer countries, corporations have more direct influence. Naomi Klein notes that the economic power which companies yield give them the ability to dictate public policy, particularly in the factory-dependent countries of Asia.13 The mercenary corporation Blackwater took the power over life usually reserved for the state in its proceedings in Iraq, while the networking capability of Twitter has been celebrated as crucial to the recent popular uprisings across the Middle East and Africa.14 For this reason, I follow Hardt and Negri in their proposal:

Along with the global market and global circuits of production has emerged a global order, a new logic and structure of rule—in short, a new form of sovereignty. Empire is the political subject that effectively regulates these global exchanges, the sovereign power that governs the world.15

Hardt and Negri note that empire, as they view it, is founded ultimately upon boundarylessness. This boundarylessness has four qualities. First, they emphasize that this global empire has no spatial limits. As we have seen, corporate power moves fluidly throughout the earth with little resistance from traditional nation-state sovereignties. The Coca Cola company is one example of such borderlessness. I myself can attest that its products can be found from the epicenters of New York and Rome to the equatorial jungles of Kenya and the deserts of Mexico and Mali. Recent Coca Cola advertisements in the United States even show polar bears drinking Coca Cola in the Arctic. Second, Hardt and Negri explain, empire presents itself with no “temporal boundaries” as the end of history. Francis Fukuyama’s book, The End of History and the Last Man, a celebration of Western liberal democracy, effectively displays this arrogance.16 Third, Hardt and Negri assert that empire is the “paradigmatic form of biopower,” seeking to rule life in its entirety. They later explain that biopower “is a form of power that regulates social life from its interior, following it, interpreting it, absorbing it, and articulating it.”17 While missiologists might find biopower strikingly similar to “worldview,” biopower connotes an element of createdness. Worldview or culture are generally considered passive concepts—no one entity makes worldview, rather all participate in it—while biopower has an active component. It assumes both an active party and recipients. When a company advertises for its product, seeking to create demand in consumers, or when a government dictates certain behaviors or modes of thinking, these are instances of biopower. A good example of biopower is in Orwell’s classic, 1984. In this dystopian novel, the main character, Winston Smith, tries to rebel against an authoritarian state led by a larger-than-life persona, Big Brother, who decries individuality and reason as thought crimes. Smith is eventually captured and tortured psychologically. Finally, the novel ends with a brain-washed Smith realizing, “it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”18 Biopower strives toward this telos—a political subject who, shaped by the forces of empire around her, desires that which the empire wants. The final quality, Hardt and Negri note, is that “although the practice of Empire is continually bathed in blood, the concept of Empire is always dedicated to peace—a perpetual and universal peace outside of history.”19 This dedication to peace gives empire its mission. As Münkler notes, mission serves as a self-sacralizing virtue for empire, expanding its necessity beyond the interests of any private actors, as well as providing a theory of ends to justify any means needed to accomplish such a task.20 This mantra of “peace and security” will be discussed further below.

Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat suggest four characteristics as definitive for empires.21 First, empires are built on systemic centralization of power. This is related to both the first and second characteristics that Münkler describes, in dissolving equality and in gradating power. While Hardt and Negri contend that empire today is marked by decentralization, this does not necessarily contradict Walsh and Keesmaat, for indeed there are multiple centers of power that both compete and work together. Second, they are secured by structures of socioeconomic and military control. This characteristic relates to Münkler’s first, second, and fifth characteristics, and in fact, it is the control secured by military and economic forces that give empire, in Münkler’s definition, the ability to retain power. Third, they are religiously legitimated by powerful myths. For instance, one common American myth is that of “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps”—in other words, if you are poor, it is your own fault for not working hard enough—everyone can be successful if they want to. This myth undermines the notion that economically successful individuals or companies may have become so by disadvantaging others, as well as bolstering the idea of the lazy poor. Adam Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” of the market which self-regulates wealth represents another common myth supporting the increasingly unregulated capital of the elite. Fourth, empires are sustained by imperial images that capture the imagination of the population. In ancient times, these images were distributed via sculpture, architecture, and coinage.22 In the Roman Empire, the dying Gaul was the image of the archetypal barbarian, while now Hollywood takes up the mantle by creating villains to match the political climate.23 Today, the ubiquity of advertisement is easy enough to see: from television to billboards to user-specific internet advertisement, empire takes captive the imaginations of the populace to serve its own economic interests. These last two characteristics—myths and imagery—are missing from Münkler’s defining features, while they relate to Hardt and Negri’s concept of biopower. In fact, imagination may be a better term than biopower, for in the “capture of imagination,” subjects can be manipulated toward certain ends by their own will rather than external force. This is the very heart of biopower.

The language of empire, as we have seen, is at times ambiguous and fraught with abstraction. Many institutions, from political states to corporations, can display qualities of empire. This aspect of empire as a qualitative term relates to theologian Walter Wink’s discussion of the language of the powers in the New Testament. He argues that the various words for powers in Scripture refer at the same time to both spiritual and material realities, and that these realities are not different, but rather, “simultaneously the outer and inner aspects of one and the same indivisible concretion of power.”24

To conclude, I suggest that empire is an inner aspect of many external realities which function together in a global network of power relations. Various institutions (governments and supra-governmental organizations, like the IMF or NATO) work with the help of ideologies (e.g., capitalism, progress, democracy, and security) to create a boundaryless empire. There is no one epicenter to this empire, rather, it has many foci, from the economic centers of London, New York, and Tokyo to the military nexi of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the Israel Defense Force in Tel Aviv. Internet-based Facebook, Twitter, and Google further function as gathering points through social technology. These epicenters of power are bolstered by a combination of military and socioeconomic structures, as well as biopower in the form of foundational myths with imagery supporting these myths.

Rhetorical Intifada

In the global economy, it is not the emperors who are stripped of their decency.  In a version of the story “Salome and the Dance of the Seven Veils,” Alphonse Allais shows this with striking imagery.  As Salome the dancer removes her veils one by one, king Herod, overcome with desire, keeps crying out, “go on, go on,” until Salome, already naked, begins to rip the flesh from her body.  “Listen,” cries the prophet Micah, “you . . . who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones” (3:1–2; niv).  Emperors, and the empires they serve, have a consuming appetite.

Understanding the prophets of ancient Israel as critical of the elites of their day has been easy enough throughout Christian history. More recently there has been a wave of scholarship reading New Testament Scripture through eyes focused on issues of empire. I will use this empire-critical lens to read what scholars consider Paul’s earliest letter, 1 Thessalonians, as a text with clear rhetoric against the empire of his day—Rome.

We learn about Paul’s missionary activity in Thessalonica via a short passage from Acts. After Paul and company made some converts in the synagogue, Jewish leaders became jealous and stirred up a crowd. Unable to find Paul and Silas, the crowd captured some new believers and took them before the politarchs (city officials), with the accusation that they were stirring up trouble as well as defying the dogmas of Caesar (Acts 17:1–9).

Thessalonica had a long history of loyalty to Rome. Its support of Octavian and Antony paid off when Thessalonica was given status as a free Roman city in 42 BC.25 This freedom gave Thessalonica ability to rule itself free of military occupation, and even could mint its own coins. Because of this, Thessalonica, by all evidence, worked with intention to keep strong ties to Rome. Coinage from 29 to 28 BC shows Thessalonians honoring Julius Caesar as a god; later, Augustus was inducted to this rank as well, considered “divi filius,” the son of a deity.26 A statue of Augustus, as well as a temple to him , were installed in the city, and are dated to the time of Paul.27 The installation of a priesthood for the goddess Roma both acknowledged the divine status of Rome’s power, as well as intimately linked the inhabitants of the city to that power.28 As Charles Wanamaker notes, “politically, the establishment of the imperial cult made good sense because it cemented Thessalonica’s relations with Rome and the emerging imperial order.”29

Further, E. A. Judge has shown that the politarchs of the city—to whom the angered crowd took Paul’s converts—were responsible for ensuring loyalty to Caesar and his decrees. An example of such an oath taken from Paphlagonia reads as follows:

I swear . . . that I will support Caesar Augustus, his children and descendants, throughout my life, in word, deed and thought…that in whatsoever concerns them I will spare neither body nor soul nor life nor children…that whenever I see or hear of anything being said, planned or done against them I will report it . . . and whomsoever they regard as enemies I will attack and pursue with arms and the sword by land and sea.30

Another oath of allegiance, this one to Tiberius, pledged reverence and obedience to the new Caesar.31 Finally, Judge cites an inscription suggesting that the local authorities had the responsibility to manage violations of the loyalty oaths.32 This evidence suggests that there was in Thessalonica an ideology of the Roman empire which Paul’s message threatened.

In fact, the Acts account tells us what that message was: there is a new emperor, one called Jesus (Acts 17:7). A quick survey of 1 Thessalonians tells us more about this “ideological intifada”33 which Paul and Silas were proclaiming. First, we note that Paul remembers the opposition to the gospel he preached (1 Thess 2:2). This antagonism was to the subversive nature of his counter-imperial gospel. As Dieter Georgi reminds us, the strongest correlation to Paul’s use of euangelion is the Priene inscription. Relevant text from this inscription reads as follows:

Providence . . . has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus . . . sending him as a savior (sotēr), both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things . . . and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the good tidings (euangelion) for the world.34

If this text represents a normative association of good tidings with the birthday of Augustus, called a god, then we can understand why indeed there was hostility to another gospel, one proclaiming Jesus as savior and Lord (kyrios). The Greeks had a long history of naming their current ruler as savior,35 while Deissmann notes that kyrios was used to denote a Roman emperor at least from the time of Nero, though probably from Augustus onward.36 Further, God has called the Thessalonian believers into his own kingdom (1 Thess 2:12). Again, such statements about another kingdom threaten the imperial rule of Rome, who throughout history were known to crush opposition.37 Moving to chapter four of the letter, we have the political terms parousia and apantēsis, the former denoting the visit of a royal official, and the latter word describing the entourage of dignified citizens who would greet such an official.38 This specific political terminology highlights that Jesus is the new royalty. Finally, we come to Paul’s mockery of Rome’s “peace and security” (1 Thess 5:3; nrsv), which Donfried calls a “frontal attack” on the early Principate.39 The peace and security mantra of Rome epitomizes imperial propaganda in the face of its “permanent crisis of legitimation.”40 According to historiographer Ernst Bammel, “Everywhere that Rome makes an appearance, the provision of peace and security is made to justify the loss of autonomy and more than compensate for all the initial terrors.”41 Thus, Rome’s peace was secured through military victory and the threat of violence, which explains why Augustus built his forum around the temple to Mars, god of war.42 For Paul, this peace and security is an imperial illusion. Peace comes from God (1 Thess 5:23), not an imperial benefactor.

The new believers are to be an assembly gathered in the name of God and his son Jesus Christ rather than Julius Caesar and his divine son Augustus.43 While the politarchs are obliged to act on their loyalties—ones the Thessalonian disciples may have once had!—the new converts now have different allegiances. Because of this, Paul urges his new believers to live in certain ways. They turned from idols (1 Thess 1:9); both idolatrous images of the Roma and her divine Caesars, as well as the mystic cults of the city.44 However, they are experiencing persecutions (1:6), no doubt similar to the very reason Paul and Silas fled the city as political subversives. Paul offers strong apocalyptic language as an antidote to this persecution; because of the ultimate lordship of Christ, he encourages believers to resist the pursuit of power through association with Rome. Instead, they should continue to practice faith and love (3:6). Faith was an imperial virtue, binding subject to conqueror. For instance, Augustus claims in his Res Gestae that, through him, the nations experienced the “good faith of the Roman people.”45 Paul understands that true faith is shown by sacrifice, not violence or fear. Further, the church should practice an economics which goes against the local grain. Wanamaker suggests that economic elites in Thessalonica encouraged cultic allegiance to Rome in order to benefit from such close ties.46 In the midst of this atmosphere of seeking power through benefaction, Paul tells the disciples to practice economic independence and lead a quiet life (4:11–12). Such anarchic practice enables the converts to speak more freely, as they do not need the largesse of the ruling elite, who depend on their associations with Rome for their economic and political success.47 The disciples themselves should model peace (5:13), but not that of Rome that comes with military might. Rather they should not repay wrong for wrong, but work for the common good (5:15). Finally, they should be of critical mind, discerning good from evil (5:21–22). This practice helps the disciples navigate the ways empire seeks to co-opt their imaginations through ritual and imagery.

Sketches Toward a Missiology of Resistance

In the Spanish fable on which Andersen based his story, the tailors declare that the clothing cannot be seen by someone of illegitimate parentage, making their ploy dependent upon social class and lineage.48 In this version, it is a black man who already has no social position and so has nothing to lose who breaks the spell of the tailors and utters, “to me it matters not whose son I am, therefore I tell you that you are riding without any clothes,” informing the king of his true state. Whether the child in Andersen’s story, with little notion of the social mechanisms of honor and shame, or the black man of the Spanish version, who is at the bottom of a race- and class-based economy, it is those at the margins of the socio-political empire who can see clearly.

Anthropologist James C. Scott notes that societies tend to have what he calls a “public transcript” between those in power and the dominated subordinates. This becomes heavily ritualized with greater disparity between the elite and the oppressed, and masks the intentions of both sides—that is, the public transcript functions as a display of power and control for the ruling class, and disguises the true feelings of the lower class in performance of deference.49 However, at times this transcript is broken. According to Scott, “the moment when the dissent of the hidden transcript crosses the threshold to open resistance is always a politically charged occasion.”50 When the oppressed can endure no more, when the severity of life under the public transcript becomes as difficult as the punishment for piercing the veil of subordination, or when like the black man in the Spanish tale, the dominated simply have nothing to lose, the subjugated breech the unspeakable and show their true beliefs. These moments change the ones who openly resist the public transcript, and in fact, function as a conversion of sorts, insofar as they give new life to the oppressed. For instance, Frederick Douglass writes after he stood up to his master, “I was nothing before; I was a man now. . . . After resisting him, I felt as I had never before. It was a resurrection.”51

My conviction is that one of the central tasks of Christians today is to break the spell of the public transcript—that is, to see empire for what it is, and to live and to speak against it. For those of us from the global North who benefit from empire, this will be difficult. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s distinction between the subjective and objective is helpful on this point. He notes that Stalin’s daughter Svetlana wrote memoirs describing her father as caring and warm, and propelled to mass murder mostly by his associate, Lavrenty Beria. Some time later, Beria’s son Sergo similarly declared that his father was a compassionate family man, who merely followed the orders of his terrible superior, Stalin. We too, lie in this tension, as we benefit from the military-industrial complex that oppresses others. Subjective experience perceives the technology of communication as benign, yet the iPhones we communicate with were made by workers in suicidal conditions. Medicines which heal us often are the products of unethical drug trials. Our Wal-Mart goods are cheap because someone else works for extremely low wages. The point is, “the experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is fundamentally a lie—the truth lies outside, in what we do.”52 Not only this, but we also think that we cannot live without what we now have. As Wendell Berry declares, “the great obstacle is simply this: the conviction that we cannot change because we are dependent upon what is wrong. But that is the addict’s excuse, and we know that it will not do.”53

Undoing the roots of empire within and without requires the formation of communities of disciples analogous to those Paul worked to establish. These communities, like the ecclesia in Thessalonica, must live peaceably, practice a new economics, and work for the common good of each other. Lenin allegedly said the following words on his deathbed:

I made a mistake. Without doubt the oppressed multitude had to be liberated. But our method only provoked further oppression—and atrocious massacres. It is too late now to alter the past—but what was needed to save Russia were ten Francis of Assisi’s.54

This suggests that the quintessential Marxist revolutionary realized that material transformation depends on inner conversion. Similarly, Ched Myers suggests that discipleship communities should once again take up the spiritual disciplines of obedience, poverty, and chastity used by Francis and his followers.55

First, contends Myers, obedience should mark our mission. Obedience has to do with the sphere of social relations. The evangelical question of the first-century ecclesia was, “who is kyrios—Jesus, or Caesar?” What we learn from Paul is that submission to Jesus as kyrios entails a concurrent resistance to Caesar, which is why, as tradition tells it, Paul was executed by empire. The missiology of the church must recover submission to God as a central theme of the gospel. This has importance on a communal plane as well. That is, just as Christian anarchists understand the confession that “Jesus is Lord” means that no one else can be,56 so peaceableness between each other is predicated upon the dissolution of social hierarchies within community. All are on an equal plane in relationship to Christ. In this vein, discipleship communities have much to learn from Quaker meetings which have experience in testing the common good by means of consensus decision making.

Poverty relates to the sphere of economics. The discipline of poverty is helpful in many ways. First, as Paul counseled the Thessalonians, economic self-sufficiency enables Christians to free themselves from the yoke of empire. How can we practice this economic independence? Kirkpatrick Sale offers some characteristics of sustainable local economies.

Control over investment, production, sales, and development would promote economic stability and provide insulation from the boom-and-bust cycles of distant market forces;

It would break dependence upon remote bureaucracies, transnational corporations, and the “vortex of world-wide trade;”

The trade balance would tend to be favorable because the economy would be geared to local “import-replacements” rather than more expensive imports.

Locally controlled currency would provide quicker economic feedback and reinvestment and could discourage accumulation and capital flight;

Local production would enhance overall health of residents because of reduced consumption of toxic or nonnutritious industrially fabricated products.57

This “economy of scale” (Myers’s term) is already practiced by many Christian communities, like Catholic worker farms and Bruderhoffs, as well as secular ones. To carry out this sort of economics, disciples need community. It is difficult to be self-sufficient alone. Farmers, artisans, traders, and builders are all needed. A life of independence from the infrastructure of empire will be challenging.

Paul encourages the Thessalonian church to promote hard work, and such is good counsel for us as well. In the United States, the discipline of poverty relates also to the war-making of our nation. One of the ways some Christian communities choose to be prophetic is by refusing to pay federal taxes which fund the wars of the state. A common method to do this is by simply living below the taxable income level. In this case, the discipline of poverty keeps disciples free from imperial consumerism as well as the blood-soaked peace of empire.

Finally, the discipline of chastity is that apocalyptic practice of critical analysis in the midst of empire. Chastity has to do with boundary maintenance. As the boundarylessness of empire pervades all parts of life, Paul’s warning to discern good from evil remains appropriate—and perhaps even more difficult—for us today. Just as Jesus told his disciples on the Mount of Olives to stay awake and keep watch, so too must we practice “insomniac theology.”58 Chastity helps us to remain watchful and critical of the myths which undergird the power of empire. There is a Lacanian joke about a doctor whose friend asks for medical advice. The doctor—unwilling to give advice without a fee—examines his friend and tells him solemnly, “you need medical advice.”59 Chastity gives us the ability to resist corporate answers, and instead search for root causes of the symptoms of empire in our lives. Though the myths prevail in the rhetoric of political pundits, corporate ads, and pop writers like Thomas Friedman, disciples are called to discern the times and critically discriminate between that which promotes the common good and that which destroys it. We must use discretion in order that we do not proclaim the good tidings of Jesus while our lives betray the lordship of corporations in our lives. An apocalyptic theology, declares Ched Myers, must practice seeing what could be in the midst of what is.60

The following are some concrete suggestions for practicing obedience, poverty, and chastity:

  1. If obedience marks the relationships both of disciples to God and of disciples to each other, then missionaries must dissolve the often hierarchical nature of missions. Paul quite clearly describes living among the Thessalonian disciples and working hard to do so. In contrast, many missionaries even today live in luxury in comparison to their target population—walled compounds, expensive vehicles, and imported foods are indicators of loyalty to empire rather than signs of solidarity with fellow disciples. From the beginning, include converts and local disciples in decision-making.
  2. Practice downward mobilization in the pursuit of an economics of poverty. Plant a garden, and eat from it. In doing so, one rejoins the agricultural cycle of the energy that sustains us, and slashes the umbilical cord of empire that nourishes us with its mass-produced food. This undercuts the empire’s myth of timelessness that feeds us with tomatoes that are available year-round. As the global migration to cities continues, it will be more and more difficult for urban communities to practice self-sustainability, as land is the base for such an economy. Therefore, as missionaries help those in cities to learn urban gardening, they must also attempt to persuade those still in the countryside not to give up the “gift of good land,”61 a phrase coined by Wendell Berry. Use public transportation. This is inconvenient, but puts the missionary in closer contact with the population she is allegedly serving. Use the internet café to communicate with home. This alerts one to the real costs of technology, and at least diminishes one’s participation in it.
  3. The practice of chastity is a matter of boundary-keeping. Make it a practice to examine the rhetoric of advertisements; find out the ways in which the corporations are trying to capture the consumer’s imagination. Similarly, examine the myths undergirding national holidays and events. These cultural rituals, often thought of as benign, propagate subtle messages about empire. In the United States, the patriotic holidays such as Independence Day and Veterans Day portray the nation-state and its subjects as the prime benefactor, vying for disciples’ loyalty over their commitments to Christ. Chastity means looking askance at the propaganda inherent in the midst of such holidays.

I conclude this essay with a joke. There is an old psychoanalysis joke about a man who thinks he is a seed of corn. After visiting his therapist for many sessions, the therapist tells him he is cured, and can now go about his life free of this delusion. A week later, to the therapist’s surprise, the man returns to the office. “What happened?” asks the therapist. “I thought you had finally concluded you were not a seed!” “Yes, yes,” the man replies, “the therapy worked for me. My problem is that I still don’t know how to convince the chickens!” Like the psychological ailments of the man in this joke, the roots of empire run deep, and resist easy conversion. My reading of 1 Thessalonians suggests that the gospel call is not to convince the proverbial chickens, but rather to create communities who model submission not to the empire of the day but to the cosmic lordship of Christ.

David Pritchett lives in North Manchester, Indiana, and works as a Physician Assistant. He spends free time reading and growing vegetables.


Agence France-Presse. “Another Foxconn Worker Falls to Death in China.” November 5, 2010.

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1 Tacitus, Agricola, 30.

2 Sarah Coleman, “Pfizer Scandal,” World Press Review 48, no. 4 (April 2001):

3 Sarah Boseley, “WikiLeaks Cables: Pfizer ‘Used Dirty Tricks to Avoid Clinical Trial Payout,’ ” The Guardian, December 9, 2010,

4 Joel Johnson, “Exclusive Look: Where the Workers Who Made Your iPhone Sleep at Night,” Gizmodo, November 2, 2010,

5 Agence France-Presse, “Another Foxconn Worker Falls to Death in China,” November 5, 2010,

6 Foxconn, “Business Philosophy,” About Foxconn,

7 Christopher Hallett, The Roman Nude: Heroic Portrait Statuary 200 B.C. to A.D. 300, Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

8 Davina Lopez, Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul’s Mission, Paul in Critical Contexts (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 42–48.

9 Tacitus, Annals, trans. Michael Grant (New York: Dorset Press, 1984), cited in Neil Elliott, The Arrogance of Nations: Reading Romans in the Shadow of Empire, Paul in Critical Contexts (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 184.

10 Herfried Münkler, Empires: The Logic of World Domination from Ancient Rome to the United States, trans. Patrick Camiller (Maldon, MA: Polity Press, 2007), 4–14. I use the quotes and summaries provided by Wes Howard-Brook, retaining his emphasis, in “Come Out, My People!”: God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010), 8.

11 To be sure, traditional nation-states still wield immense power. The nations of the Global North, in particular, use military strength across the globe in order to pursue their interests. I assume that readers of this essay are familiar with imperial tendencies of modern nation-states. For critiques of the nation-state, especially in regard to war-making, see Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back In, ed. Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 169–87, and William Cavanaugh, “Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State Is not the Keeper of the Common Good,” Modern Theology 20, no. 2 (April 2004): 243–74.

12 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “Afterword,” Evangelicals and Empire: Christian Alternatives to the Political Status Quo, ed. Bruce Ellis Benson and Peter Goodwin Heltzel (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 309.

13 Naomi Klein, No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs (New York: Picador, 1999), 227.

14 Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (New York: Nation Books, 2007). On Twitter’s role in Tunisia, see “The First Twitter Revolution?” in Foreign Policy,, accessed 3/15/2012.

15 Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), xi.

16 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).

17 Ibid., 23–24.

18 George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Plume, 2003), 308.

19 Hardt and Negri, Empire, xiv–xv.

20 Münkler, 85.

21 Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2004), 58.

22 Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus, Jerome Lectures 16 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988).

23 For description of the Gaul as the archenemy of Rome in visual art and literature, see Brigitte Kahl, Galatians Re-imagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished, Paul in Critical Contexts (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010). For Hollywood’s treatment of contemporary villains, see, for instance, Helena Vanhala, The Depiction of Terrorists in Blockbuster Hollywood Films, 1980–2001: An Analytical Study (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 2011), and Jack Shaheen’s Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (Brooklyn: Olive Branch Press, 2001).

24 Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 107.

25 Ben Witherington, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 3.

26 Charles Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 5.

27 Witherington, 5.

28 Karl Paul Donfried, Paul, Thessalonica, and Early Christianity (New York: T&T Clark, 2002), 36.

29 Wanamaker, 5.

30 Edwin A. Judge, “The Decrees of Caesar at Thessalonica,” Reformed Theological Review 30 (1971): 6.

31 Ibid., 7.

32 Ibid., 7.

33 Original to Mark Chmiel, this phrase is cited in Neil Elliott, Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 189.

34 Dieter Georgi, Theocracy in Paul’s Praxis and Theology, trans. David Green (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 83.

35 Kahl, 68, notes that this term was taken by Attalus, the Pergamene ruler, as early as 240 BC, and the title was used of his successors in Asia Minor as well.

36 Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), 351–58.

37 Kahl, 53.

38 Donfried, 34. Georgi, 27, notes that this welcoming has already happened in one sense, in the Thessalonian believers’ welcoming of God’s ambassador, Paul.

39 Donfried, 34.

40 Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), cited in Elliott, Liberating Paul, 185.

41 Ernst Bammel, “Romans 13,” in Jesus and the Politics of his Day, ed. Ernst Bammel and C. F. D. Moule, 365–84 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), cited in Elliott, Liberating Paul, 186.

42 Kahl, 129.

43 Donfried, 143.

44 Donfried, 22–37.

45 Cited in Elliott, Arrogance, 29.

46 See his discussion on pages 5, 11–13.

47 Elliott, Arrogance, 32, cites G. E. M. de Ste. Croix observing that local elite welcomed Roman rule which kept down popular resistance movements.

48 Juan Manuel, Count Lucanor; or the Fifty Pleasant Stories of Patronio, trans. James York (London: Gibbings and Co., 1899), ch. 7.

49 James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 2–3.

50 Ibid., 207.

51 Ibid., 208.

52 Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, Big Ideas/Small Books (New York: Picador, 2008), 47.

53 Quoted in Ched Myers, Who Will Roll Away the Stone?: Discipleship Queries for First World Christians (Maryknoll: Orbis Press, 1994), 161.

54 In Alexandre Christoyannopoulos, Christian Anarchism: A Political Commentary on the Gospel (Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic, 2011), 171. The story itself seems to be a bit apocryphal, as there is no certain source for this quote.

55 Myers, 181.

56 See, for instance, Mark Van Steenwyk, That Holy Anarchist: Reflections on Christianity and Anarchism (Minneapolis: Missio Dei, 2012).

57 Cited by Myers, 354.

58 Myers, 388.

59 Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes (London: Verso, 2008), 331.

60 Myers, 389–404.

61 Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays, Cultural and Agricultural (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 1981), 267.

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