Alternatives to Empire panel

I was asked to speak at an Alternatives to Empire event…here’s what I said:

I’ve been asked to speak briefly about how Christianity leads me to live and work for alternatives to empire. I want to begin with some ideas for which I am indebted to the theologian Walter Brueggemann.

Everybody has a script or story by which they live. The script may be implicit or explicit, recognized or unrecognized, but everybody, religious or not, has a script.

We get scripted. All of us get scripted through the process of nurture and formation and socialization, and it happens to us without our knowing it.

The dominant scripting in our society is that of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism that socializes us all.  Perhaps a more simple overarching term for this script is: empire or domination.

Enacted partly through advertising and propaganda and ideology, especially on the liturgies of television, that script promises to keep us safe and to make us happy.  That script has failed. It cannot make us safe and it cannot make us happy.

I believe that the best alternative script is rooted in the Bible and is enacted through the best traditions of the Christian Church. It provides a counter-narrative, counter to the script of technological, therapeutic, consumer militarism, the script of empire. Whereas the dominant script is all about certitude, privilege, and entitlement this counter-script is not about certitude, privilege, and entitlement.

Rather its central stories involve oppressed peoples being liberated, unjust regimes being exiled, and societies of just economic distribution and redistribution being set up.  At its centre stands the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, who is born in obscurity, does his work at the margins with those considered the least, who confronts unjust systems and who is killed by empire.  This is a God who rules not with a sword but with the humble towel of a servant, who conquers not by destroying his enemies but by loving them, and who overcomes evil not by retaliating in kind but with nonviolent suffering love.  And this way is vindicated in resurrection.  Since we live in the light of resurrection, we are also called to live this way now.

Hence the task of being a disciple or follower of Jesus is the task of not merely liking or admiring Jesus or his teachings, nor even of merely being forgiven by him, but of fitting our life stories into his life story as Daniel Berrigan has put it, in other words being scripted by the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and in doing so, continuing the work of subverting and replacing empire – in the world, and in ourselves.  This task is enabled by the Spirit of God, which animates us and draws us towards life.

As we begin to live these stories they are no longer merely stories that can be dismissed as mythical,  nor irrelevant due to their age, they become our story.  Not because we merely chose to read them, nor even identify with them, but because they have become one with our life, we find ourselves inside them and bear witness to their truth in concrete ways.  That is, our lives bear witness to an alternative imagination and creativity in the midst of a world which still responds in the same old ways.

And so we try to do the things Jesus did – for example, sharing meals with strangers and those rejected by society at large.  I work at Urban Seed in Melbourne’s CBD.  Its work is centred around Credo Cafe, a free lunch at which anyone is welcome.  Our connections are primarily with those on the margins, who lack other support networks, and who often have turned to gambling or heroin or other addictions.  Here is a space of mutual healing, where rich people have the chance to share their wealth, and street people a chance to share their wisdom, where privileged people begin to have our eyes opened to how distorted our view of the world is, and where those without privilege can be honoured and find their place.

I’m also part of a Christian community in Brunswick called inspiral.  Here in relationship with one another we learn not to avoid conflict nor to perpetuate it, but to see it transformed by forgiveness and reconciliation.  We try to grow our own food organically, and in so doing learn not to exploit the earth for its resources but to cooperate in its processes and yield to its limits.  We try to be hospitable to strangers by having them stay with us, and in doing so learn generosity and trust, or at least how selfish and grabby we are.

And by nonviolent resistance to war we embody an alternative to the ways of domination which make claims to be able to save us, even as we’ve seen in many of the Anzac services this past weekend.  We do this in three ways: one, by protest and persuasion, appealing to decision makers to change their policies, two, by noncooperation or withdrawing our own consent and participation in such systems, and three, by active intervention and nonviolent direct action.

So I have participated in three acts of civil disobedience as well as countless public actions against the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, primarily at the biennial Talisman Saber exercises in Shoalwater Bay Queensland.  This involves the armies, navies and air forces of Australia and the U.S. engaging in interoperability exercises, fusing the two forces together.  Resisting these exercises is just one way to resist the imperial wars being fought in our name.

And finally, I do all of these things imperfectly, disjointedly, and disappointingly rarely, because while I try to live the alternative, I am simultaneously being socialised by this society into the way of empire.  Therefore I need you, we need each other, to be not just telling one another how bad things are but embodying alternative practices which reject domination, and instead invite participation, respect and mutual service.

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Stanley Hauerwas on the church and social justice

“What makes the church ‘radical’…is not that the church leans to the left on most social issues, but rather that the church knows Jesus whereas the world does not.  In the churches view, the political left is not noticeably more interesting than the political right, both tend towards solutions that act as if the world has not ended and begun in Jesus.  Big words like Peace and Justice, slogans the church adopts under the presumption that, even if people do not know what ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ means, they will know what Peace and Justice means, are words awaiting content.  It is Jesus’ story that gives content to our faith, judges any institutional embodiment of our faith, and teaches us to be suspicious of any political slogan that does not need God to make itself credible…Most of our social activism is formed on the presumption that God is superfluous to the formation of a world of peace with justice.” — Stanley Hauerwas

Gavin’s poetry

One of the guys I know from a boarding house a few doors down writes poetry. In fact he talks with rhymes (the most frequent one being ‘may your familEE be healthEE for eternitEE’). Anyway, I came across this one from him today:

A good man’s steps are ordered by the Lord
And he will never live by the sword
And we all could be one accord
As we follow Jesus our Lord
That much we can afford
Don’t live by the sword
Love the Lord.

He’s really not the Messiah

“I guess when Obama says this stuff…I don’t think he really means it. And that gives me hope.”
Jason Jones.

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your point being…?


When will people realise that the Bible isn’t trying to be a literal historical document of events and stop trying to do research like this?

“The New Testament says that Jesus walked on water, but a Florida university professor believes there could be a less miraculous explanation – he walked on a floating piece of ice…

The study found that a period of cooler temperatures in the area between 1,500 and 2,600 years ago could have included the decades in which Jesus lived.

A drop in temperature below freezing could have caused ice thick enough to support a human to form on the surface of the freshwater lake near the western shore, Nof said.” (Full text here.)

Any attempt to demystify stories like this completely destroys the point of them. The point is not that the gospel writers wanted to tell people that Jesus was able to defy the laws of physics. The point was that for the Jews (and other ancient people of that time), the water was a profoundly frightening thing: below it lay the world of the dead, for starters. Telling a story about Jesus walking on it completely calmly is a point about who Jesus is, and the disciples’ reactions are about what discipleship is like (ie a profoundly terrifying thing, humanly speaking).

Just like the feeding of the two crowds in Mark is not about Jesus’ rationing skills, it’s about Jesus’ sufficiency for all people, and John 9 is also not about healing a blind man, it’s about who can and can’t see who Jesus is, and why – etc, etc.

Not that I’m not a fan of the idea of Jesus the original surfie – and on a piece of ice, no less.