Imperial Politics, Christianity, and the True Jesus
Reflection on the 2004 Election
Remarks by David Korten in Dialogue with Cynthia Moe-Lobeda
Slightly more than five years ago, in September 1999, many of us who are here tonight gathered in Saint Marks Cathedral for a Conference on Global Economic Justice sponsored by Seattle’s churches. Marcus Borg and Anuradha Mittal were among our speakers. It was just before the historic confrontation between the World Trade Organization and Global Civil Society that made Seattle an icon of the global economic justice movement. How many of you participated in that conference or in the WTO demonstrations that followed?
I think we can safely assume that most of you here are familiar with the issues that define the global struggle against corporate globalization. I will touch on those issues briefly, and then direct my attention to placing that struggle in its larger context and reflecting on the implications of last week’s election.
I left the September 1999 conference filled with hope that America’s Christian churches were flowing with a new spiritual energy that carried the potential to reshape America and its role in the world in the service of justice, peace, and love for all of God’s Creation.
We meet here tonight with an awareness brought home by the events of the election last week that a particular segment of America’s Christian faith community has moved to the center stage of American politics and is indeed reshaping America and its role in the world. Unfortunately, however, rather than advancing a vision of a world of justice, peace, and love for God’s Creation, it is serving a political agenda sharply at odds with the moral teachings of Jesus. It raises some difficult questions: What does it mean to be a Christian; and what is Christian morality?
When we met in September 1999, our attention was focused on the efforts of global corporations and financial institutions to circumvent the processes of democratic decision making by working through organizations like the World Trade Organization to rewrite the rules of global commerce to free themselves from public accountability for the social and environmental consequences of their relentless pursuit of profit. A little more than a month later fifty thousand people took to the streets of Seattle — including thousands from the faith community — to say No! This historic demonstration drew the attention of the world to an epic moral struggle to determine whether money or life will be humanity’s defining value.
In the words of the Earth Charter: “We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future.”
The Great Turning
Buddhist spiritual teacher Joanna Macy speaks of the Great Turning. A 5,000 year Era of Empire is dying. The Earth and civilization can no longer the burden of a global system of imperial domination. A new era — an Era of Earthy Community — is birthing. We are experiencing the chaos and uncertainty of a Turbulent Transition as the cultural and institutional foundations of Empire disintegrate and the cultures and institutions of Earth Community begin to take form from Empire’s remains.
These are frightening times, not only because of the uncertainty, but also because evidence of the dying is so much more visible than evidence of the birthing. Our mission at YES! magazine is to make the birthing more visible and help people engage. I especially recommend the article on “Phoenix Rising from the Ashes” by Van Jones that presents his reflections on the implications of the 2004 election in our forthcoming Winter 2005 issue on the theme “Healing and Resistance.”
Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, the Bush administration brought new clarity to our understanding of what is at stake in the Great Turning when it announced that henceforth the United States would pursue its global interests through a policy of unilateral pre-emptive war, including the possible use of nuclear weapons, to protect American interests in whatever way the Bush administration choose to define them. That shifted the frame of our work from confronting two hundred years of pillage by global corporations to the work of bringing to an end a 5,000 year history of military empire that began in Mesopotamia, in the land we now know as Iraq.
By its explicit articulation of the U.S. imperial agenda the Bush administration also stripped away the illusion that the United States is the modern citadel of democracy to expose the truth that we are an imperial nation ruled by people of extreme wealth. The shock of that exposure led me to take another look at U.S. history, which leaves little doubt that we have in fact been an imperial plutocracy since our founding.
It is instructive to note that the economy of every Empire in the recorded human experience has been built on a foundation of slavery or its equivalents of bonded labor, sweatshop workers, and disenfranchised migrant agricultural laborers — all stripped of their basic human rights. It is axiomatic. The power and privilege of the few depends on the oppression of the many. Corporate globalization is simply a modern manifestation of a 5,000 year pattern.
Contrary to the saying “The Poor will always be with us,” poverty is not inevitable. It is a product of failed human institutions created by human choice. We can make different choices — and it is our moral obligation to do so!
The epic struggle between the forces of Empire and the forces of Earth Community has deep historic roots in the Christian church. The historic Jesus stood against Empire and called on his followers to live into being a world of peace and justice. Perhaps he rightfully bears the title of founder of what we now call Global Civil Society. However, the religious movement Jesus founded was soon co-opted to the service of Empire during the rule of Emperor Constantine.
The struggle between the imperial and the egalitarian Christian traditions continues to this day. The American churches of our time that align with the Imperial Christ and presume to speak as the voice of all Christians played a deciding role in last week’s election. The churches that align with the living Jesus, the Jesus who called us to a world of peace and justice, remained on the sidelines.
Images of God
I was first exposed to the ideas of Jesus scholar Marcus Borg at the September 1999 conference where he spelled out the significance of Christianity’s contrasting images of God. By Borg’s reckoning, the anthropomorphic God that we visualize in human form is the monarchal God of Empire. The God of Jesus and the Christian mystics is the Spirit of Creation manifest through all being. It brings forward a dynamic image of Creation and its continual unfolding that is universal, egalitarian, and calls us to create the world of peace and justice for all beings at the core of Jesus’ teaching. It is the sacred story of Earth Community.
Our very language traps us in the Imperial Christianity. It is virtually impossible to speak the name “God” without evoking the image of an elder male with a white beard and a fierce expression --- the image of the imperial or monarchal God — who created the heavens and the Earth with a sweep of his hand as objects external to his own being, is jealous of our loyalty, and demands strict obedience to his will.
Our images of the sacred shape our sense of the human place and responsibility in Creation and thereby of our politics.
With this thought in mind, I turn to a question that may have occurred to some of you: How did the far right carry the day in last week’s election?
Let’s start with a crucial fact. Apart from members of the corporate plutocracy, most Bush voters did not vote their economic self-interest. Pundits say they voted their moral values. Actually, I suggest they voted their psychology: their longing for meaning, identity, and community in a world of family and community breakdown. Demagogues of the far right have turned this positive and healthy longing against feminists, gays, and lesbians as the scapegoats for a very real crisis caused by a brutally unjust economy in which a growing percentage of available jobs pay less than a family wage and offer no benefits.
For the media to suggest that only Bush voters were voting their moral values is surely quite odd. Economic justice is a moral issue. Leaving trillions of dollars of debt to our children to repay is a moral issue. Destroying God’s creation to make money for rich people is a moral issue. Killing tens of thousands of innocent people for a lie is a moral issue. These are all moral issues at the heart of Christian teaching. Perhaps we should say so in our public discourse.
Manipulation of human emotions for dark ends is nothing new. Imperial rulers have for 5,000 years played to desires for meaning, identity, and community with stories of imperial god kings, heroic nationalism, and dangerous foreign enemies. These stories are carefully crafted to legitimate the power of the rulers, caste them as the courageous father protectors of the national family, and gain the voluntary submission of the oppressed by embedding in the public mind an image of a dangerous world divided between the worthy and the unworthy, the good and the evil. The right wing in America has mastered this story telling art.
To understand what really happened in the election it was necessary to tune into the right-wing media, particularly the right-wing radio talk-shows. The strategy of the Far Right was elegant in its simplicity. It turned on defining two words — “liberal” and “leader.”
Rightwing commentators and talk-show hosts have for years been repeating versions of the refrain, “liberals are elitist snobs who look down on ordinary people, have no values, hate Christians, criticize America, and side with evil terrorists.” “Liberals hate Bush because he is a Christian.”
The rightwing definition of “leader” is based on the metaphor of the strict father who acts with moral certainty based on Christian biblical teaching, rules with an iron hand, does not negotiate with his lessers, and has no need to explain or apologize for his actions.
Much of the Bush campaign was devoted to defining Kerry as a “wishy-washy liberal.” To those uninitiated in the rightwing definitions of “liberal” and “leader,” this seems a substance-free, almost silly, claim. To the initiated, however, the terms “liberal” and “wishy-washy” communicated a powerful psychological message: “Kerry is an elitist snob who has no values, hates Christians, looks down on ordinary people like you and me, and lacks the moral backbone to protect the national family from its evil enemies.” “Bush is a God fearing Christian guided by the moral certainty of biblical text and called by God to guide and protect the nation as a resolute father leader in a war against evil.”
Since the early 1970s, a dedicated alliance of corporate plutocrats and religious theocrats has been laying the foundation of their takeover of U.S. political institutions by building a powerful network of right-wing think tanks, media outlets, and churches. The think tanks frame the language and the stories of the public discourse. The media outlets and churches disseminate the language and the stories. And the churches turn out voters. This infrastructure has proven a powerful vehicle for advancing a Politics of Empire based on division, fear, manipulation, and domination. It is a bullying politics reminiscent of a childish playground brawl that substitutes name-calling and character assassination for problem-solving and undermines the credibility of our political institutions. The challenge before us is to displace the politics of Empire with the politics of Earth Community based on inclusion, possibility, and partnership — an authentic values-based, problem-solving politics of mature adulthood consistent with the moral teachings of Jesus.
We humans long for spiritual meaning. But the only voices most people hear speaking about values and spirit in the public discourse are those of the Far Right. Virtually every progressive leader I know is working from a deeply spiritual place, but we rarely speak openly in our environmental, peace, and justice work of values or the sacred. The time has come for the nation’s mainstream churches to come out of the closet and speak publicly of values and the spiritual foundations of the progressive agenda and to articulate spiritually grounded stories of human possibility and the world that the living Jesus called us to create.
This is the challenge before us. We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for.
[The Rauschenbusch Center Dinner was followed the next morning by a Brunch conversation at Seattle’s University Baptist Church. The following is a reconstruction of David Korten’s follow-on remarks as a participant in that conversation.]
I want to comment on what others have said this morning and then share an epiphany I had last night.
As we move forward in our work of creating a world of peace and justice, it is important to remind ourselves that we are not alone. Indeed, as David Bloom mentioned earlier this morning, there are many positive initiatives already underway in the faith community. Our role is not to duplicate existing initiatives, but rather to strengthen them and help them link together.
It is also important to remind ourselves that irrespective of the election outcome our values and vision are share by the vast majority of Americans — and the vast majority of the world’s people — including the majority of Americans who identify themselves as conservatives, fundamentalists, evangelicals, and Republicans. Those with whom our differences may be irreconcilable are limited to a relatively small fringe of ruthless, unprincipled extremists who claim to speak for these groups as they claim to speak for all Christians, but whose views are inimical to the teachings of Jesus and far out of the mainstream. This fringe element has been organizing for more than thirty years to move American politics to the extreme right by controlling the language and stories of the political discourse and ruthlessly attacking the character of all who challenge them.
We must begin the work of honing the stories and language of a transformational politics of peace and justice and develop the media strategies to bring them forward into the public consciousness. Those who mobilize on the far right did not wait for the media to come to them. Nor did they gain their media voice by sending out press releases. They created their own think tanks to hone their language and messages, and hired well-paid professional spokespersons to advance the movement’s media outreach. They cultivated relationships with reporters and commentators. They groomed young people for media careers, developed their own talk shows and religious programming, and bought their own media outlets.
I’ve become aware that virtually every activist I know is working from a spiritual place. Some have explicit religious affiliations. Others, like myself, do not. In my experience, however, it is rare for progressive leaders of either group to speak explicitly of the spiritual grounding of their work. I believe it is time for all of us to come out of the closet to begin speaking in the language of values and articulate stories that communicate the spiritual beliefs underlying our work.
Members of the Christian faith community face a particular challenge to tell with courage and conviction the story of how the life and teaching of Jesus conflicts with the falsified doctrines of those who advance Empire in Jesus’ name. Although coming to terms with issues relating to our image of God is central our longer-term work, our immediate work of countering what Cindy Moe-Lobeda referred to last night as the idolatry of the far right centers on the story of Jesus. Who was Jesus? How did he live? What did he teach? What was his vision for the world? And how were his name and image co-opted to the cause of Empire following his crucifixion?
This brings me to the epiphany. At the banquet last night, I was a bit troubled that all the awards were to persons and groups involved in hosting the Tent City of Seattle’s homeless. This is good and important work, but it seemed to me at the time a bit of a diversion from the more difficult work of eliminating the causes of homelessness. At the same time I was stunned by the story told by one of the awardees of the man in his congregation who accused those who advocated hosting Tent City on church property of aligning themselves with Christ’s executioners. I spent much of the night wondering how anyone could get it so wrong.
The epiphany centered on the possibility of turning Tent City into a learning opportunity. It began with the question: “If Jesus were among us today, where would we most likely find him?” The answer, of course, is that we might well find him living in Tent City. He would not be there dispensing charity, but rather the gift of respect and dignity — perhaps enlisting its residents to join his band of disciples.
Although few residents of Tent City live there by choice, the condition of their lives is not so different than that of the members of a spiritual community who have renounced material possessions as distractions from their spiritual search. I was deeply moved by the strength, dignity, sense of community, and concern for one another of the members of Tent City who joined us for the dinner last night. To encounter Tent City is a lesson in the cruelty and violence of an economic system that takes no heed of the plight of the many intelligent and caring human beings for which it has no place; it is also a lesson in the possibilities of surviving with dignity in a caring community even under the most adverse of circumstances — a wonderful antidote to Empire’s call to individualistic greed and materialism.
It occurred to me that the people who so strongly oppose hosting Tent City at their churches are partly afraid for the safety of their property and children. But I suspect that what really troubles them is Tent City’s unspoken reminder to those who live only a paycheck or two away from homelessness themselves of the vulnerability we all share in an uncaring society. It is a reminder some prefer to keep out of sight and mind.
I am very aware of how my own experience living and working in some of the world’s poorest countries transformed my spiritual and political consciousness. I also observed the impact on my daughter Alicia’s development of her choice to live with some of the poorest people on the planet, including several days living in the simple home of scavengers constructed from scraps on Manila’s infamously fetid garbage dump.
What if some of Tent City’s hostile opponents found the courage and compassion to live voluntarily for a few days, as Jesus might have done, as guests of Tent City’s residents? How might that experience transform their lives? What if the churches of our region came to come to look at the hosting of Tent City not as an act of charity, but as a learning opportunity and greeted the residents of Tent City as teachers? It might just be the foundation of a profound political and social transformation.