This is a "reprint" of an article by Wes Howard Brook at ABC Australia/Religious Ethics. Wes Howard-Brook has been teaching and writing at the intersection of church, society and academy since 1988. Wes teaches theology and scripture at Seattle University and at churches and gatherings around the Pacific Northwest, the U.S., and now the world! For a beefed up biography and a list of his books, you can visit Amazon. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Empire or creation? Redeeming religion as a binding force
What binds us together as a "people"? In our mobile, globalized world, it's harder than ever to say specifically what connects us as individuals to others. As my wife and I prepare for our five week visit to Australia, a number of our hosts tell us they are asking each other, "What does it mean to be 'Australian'?" The same question could be asked on our side of the world: What does being an "American" mean? Our divided politics reveal that there is no clear answer to these questions of national identity.
In the absence of such bonds, we are subject to the lure of offers to connect us with others through brand loyalty or other consumer preferences. Are we "Abercrombie and Fitch people" - which CEO Mike Jeffries made clear means "cool, good-looking people"? Is it the car we drive, the music we enjoy, restaurants we prefer, that bind us with people "like us"?
In the past, people were generally connected by religion. But the same questions can be asked: What is it to be a "Christian" or a "Muslim"? We find at least as wide a range of possible responses to the question of religious identity as we do about national identity. The same is true about ethnic identity as well.
We long as human beings for connections with others that run deeper than mere preferences or marketing campaigns. The Latin root of the much maligned word "religion" (religio) means precisely "to bind again." It presumes that previous bonds have come undone, and new ones must be forged. Sadly, "religion" has become associated for many with harsh, judgmental, rule-based institutions, or with the hateful prejudices of some who "in the name of God" proclaim judgment on people they don't like or are afraid of: asylum seekers, people of different sexual identity, and so on.
I'd like to offer a way to redeem "religion" as a binding force. As one who seeks to live the Way of Jesus, I am constantly appalled by the violence, hate and exploitation done both historically and currently in the name of "Christianity." But I also don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. It's not Jesus's fault that so many things done in his name are the precise opposite of everything he said and did!
The problem, of course, does not begin with Jesus or Christianity. At the root of the biblical tradition is an argument about who God is and what it means to be God's people that anticipates today's arguments about religion. On one hand, there is the perspective that God has chosen a particular group for favour to the exclusion of others. This position claims God's authority for violence against "the other." It starts from the premise that life is a competition for survival amid scarcity. It legitimizes a social order of hierarchical power and domination. It uses the earth and its creatures for whatever purposes are deemed profitable. We find this viewpoint in the narrative of the acquisition of "the Promised Land" at the expense of the indigenous people and the establishment of a Jerusalem-centred monarchy. I call this the religion of empire.
On the other hand we find a counter-narrative that claims that we are one human family and all creation is sacred. It sees life as a collaboration amid abundance. It denounces the power of human domination over both people and the earth and rejects human violence. It is the story found in Genesis, Exodus the prophets and the apocalyptic tradition. I call this the religion of creation.
For a thousand years before Jesus, these two "religions" fought for the hearts and minds of the people of God. Jesus entered this ancient battle and took sides: he proclaimed the "reign of God" in "religion of creation" terms and rejected the "religion of empire" as a demonic lie. For this, the upholders of the religion of empire - both among the Jerusalem and Roman elite - rejected and killed him. The resurrection expresses God's powerful affirmation of Jesus's own stance.
This battle between the religion of empire and the religion of creation has played out across history and continues today. Consider one topic that connects us across the Pacific: the extraction and burning of coal. From a religion of empire viewpoint, coal is there for our use: we can dig it up, sell it, burn it with no concern for the earth, water or air. But from a religion of creation perspective, coal is part of the sacred mystery of creation: millions of years in formation, reminding us of our own fleeting presence on this fragile and beautiful planet.
Or consider the fate of asylum seekers. The religion of empire sees "foreignness" as something of which to be suspicious and to exclude wherever possible. But the religion of creation denounces the very notion of "foreignness" as a demonic illusion in the face of our common genealogy as creatures bearing the image of God.
Examples abound of how these two "religions" bind people together across nationalities, ethnicities and even traditional religious labels like "Jew," "Christian" or "Muslim." During the Vietnam War, American Catholic monk Thomas Merton found brotherhood with Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh. More recently, South African Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu has toured the world with his beloved brother, the Tibetan Buddhist Dalai Lama. In the Middle East, Jews, Christians and Muslims work side-by-side for peace among Israelis and Palestinians. What enables these people of apparently different "religions" to find spiritual brother/sister-hood is the recognition that, despite the different labels, they share a common worldview and commitment to live it out.
In today's virtual world, we can choose to live in isolation from real relationships with "the other." But behind this virtual facade, we are yearning for authentic connection with others, for an intimacy that cannot be found online. We seek to be bound again, not perhaps by "name-brand" religions, but by genuine, heartfelt, embodied relationships that seek to respond with gratitude to the Source of Life. That, I believe, is what Jesus lived, died and rose to proclaim and to embody himself: not to start a new religion called "Christianity," but to call people to return to the Story that bound us "in the beginning."
Which will we choose: the religion of empire or the religion of creation? The fate of humanity and of the earth depends on our choice.
Wes Howard-Brook teaches at Seattle University and collaborates in the ministry Abide in Me with his wife, Sue Ferguson Johnson. His most recent book is "Come Out, My People!": God's Call Out of Empire In the Bible and Beyond, which won the Catholic Press Association Award. He will be speaking at various events around Australian in July-August 2013.
theology-Words of God
What are your theos-logos? What are your thoughts about the intersection of religion and theos-logos? Is there a place for organized religion in today's world? Is there a place for religion at all? Where is God to be found in relationship to religions? or to areligion?
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