I shook together the bits of what I expect to say Tuesday at the Ekklesia Project Gathering, and this is what came out.
The title of the talk will be, “ ‘The Strong Right Arm That Holds For Peace’: Godliness as an Alternative to Empire.”
I’ll begin by walking through the first three commandments (working from Ex 20:2-7). I’ll read through and paraphrase them, with observations on the Hebrew and Greek, but I won’t emphasize the technical aspects — just give a sense of the diction and expression.
Then I’ll expound these words as an expression of God’s identity, from which we derive our way of life. We acknowledge God alone as the determinative premise/context for orienting our lives; we repudiate any mediatory representation of or alternative to God; we can not invoke God as leverage toward proximate ends. In other words, God is unique, aniconic, and inutile.
I’ll then sketch the ways that U.S. culture effects a displacement of the unique, aniconic, inutile God by intervening as complementary unique savior — but one that you can see, that does stuff for you. I’ll differentiate this from “idolatry” in the way that preachers conventionally characterize our captivity to capital, to entertainment, to achievement. The sacralized American way of life has displaced God, not presented itself as an alternative — but the God who addresses us as our unique, aniconic, inutile source of identity cannot be displaced without denying that God.
In case this all sounds too dramatic and too abstract, I’ll introduce a case study that shows one way in which Imperial America supplants God.
I’ll argue that the church does not fittingly testify to the God of the Decalogue (and resists the imperial American supplanter) by arguing over just what constitutes idolatry, or whether this or that constitutes an appropriate policy direction for the U.S. government. Partly, that’s because the very terms of the engagement distance us from our immediate allegiance to our God; and partly because our strongest arguments for the God of the Decalogue, against the sacred America, come when our identities bespeak as distinctly and unambiguously as possible, an embodied exposition of God’s identity.
We profess an alternative to Empire’s claim on our lives when we live in a way that our interlocutors cannot make sense of, apart from acknowledging that which sacral America cannot abide: we owe our allegiance only to God. While divinized America can couch its prerogatives in terms of justice, of freedom, it cannot make explicit claim to godliness as a civil virtue. The practice of godliness, of making manifest a persistent allegiance to the unique, aniconic, inutile God of the Decalogue, constitutes the church as an anti-Empire.
Well, it’ll all take a lot of fine-tuning — and it’s not an argument congenial to my many liberal-democratic friends, to the extent that (as much as I admire their steadfast commitment to representative democracy) I remain unable to vest my hopes in the the political process.
I’ll see whether I can record the talk when I give it, and I’ll post both the recording and a rough transcript.