Joerg Rieger on Empire and Christianity

A review of his three Lectures to SPAFER in Birmingham, AL, back in September at Canterbury United Methodist Church

In September SPAFER was pleased to have Jeorg Rieger to present the Fall Lecture series which was held at Canterbury United Methodist Church.  Rieger had some significant insights to share about empire, economics, and resistance movements.

“Empire wants to shape everything – not just economics and politics. It wants to shape what you believe.” This is how Professor Rieger began his lecture on Empire.  The concept of Empire is to control everything from the top down, put power and wealth into the hands of a few while controlling the many by influencing the way people think.  With Empire, power flows from the top down. In reality, Rieger states, there are alternatives to Empire: “One of the hopes of Christianity is that power flows from other places.”

Indeed the Jesus Movement began as a resistance movement to the empire.  While Christianity began as a counterpoint and an alternative to Empire, with Constantine it became wedded to the empire and shaped by empire with the purpose of unifying the realm. Emperor Constantine called for the Council of Nicaea asking that the bishops establish a definitive creed for all Christians. The Nicene Creed came out of that council. Rieger pointed out the irony of the creed’s Trinitarian affirmation. Although the creed focuses on belief and leaves out the life and ministry of Jesus, by placing Jesus at the same level as God (an idea not uniformly held by all Christians at the time) the seed of resistance to Empire was planted.  The traditional view of the world was one of top-down authority and control. It made sense to see God as the powerful Emperor keeping everything under control. By making Jesus equal to God, perhaps those radical images of Jesus would be transferred to God.  Those images bound up in the life and teachings of Jesus present God as “more like a day laborer than emperor.”  With Nicaea, “Jesus is reshaping whatever you think the core of reality is… God is no longer the Divine Imperialist.”

Rieger talked about how alternative forms of power have shaped things from the beginning of Christianity citing examples form 19th and 20th century movements such as the Abolitionists, the Labor Movement, the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Moment.  He then posed two questions, “What difference does Christianity make on the Empire?” and “What difference does Empire make upon Christianity?”

As for how Empire influences Christianity, economics has played a crucial role. Rieger spent some time talking about the gospel of prosperity preached by popular TV evangelists.  With the prosperity gospel, the image of God is shaped by wealth and power (just as with Constantine).  Typically, economics has been viewed as real and practical while religion has been perceived as a matter of lofty ideas.  In American life today, Rieger points out, quoting economists Robert Nelson, “economics looks more and more like religion.” Indeed, economics often appears to be operating on principles of blind faith. While the gospel of prosperity in actuality entices followers and holds them in control with the primary economic beneficiary being the prosperity preacher, he added that mainline Christianity is not far behind.  Mainline Churches buy into the economics of Empire, they are just not as overt in their preaching as are the TV evangelists.

“We had ‘pie-in-the-sky’ religion for a long time, now we have pie-in-the-sky economics – this is one way Empire solidifies power in the hands of the few.” Even such statements as the quote from John F. Kennedy, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” is something widely believed, but which in actuality has not happened.

“Top-down thinking may kill us,” the professor stated. “Economics today is no longer judged by the common good.” Citing Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, he shows how a typical Empire image was reshaped by the gospel. Using a common Empire image of the body to represent the human community in which all must accept their role, Paul changes that image to point out that the head cannot say to the feet, “I have no need of you,” and that when one member suffers, all suffer.” Rieger made some allusions to our current “jobless recovery” being the head saying to the feet, “I have no need of you.” He further added that the Labor Movement was in line with Paul’s thinking when it affirmed that “An injury to one in an injury to all.”

Rieger’s stated that his own interest was not in inter-religious dialogue, but rather in dialogue between religious liberation traditions.  “Top-down power does not relinquish power easily.”  He called upon his hearers to consider the resistance movement/bottom-up traditions that have been manifest throughout our history. He encouraged people to see God “in the least of these” rather than “at the top.” “Bottom-up power is not wishful thinking – it has historically been shown to have effective results.”  “I’m not just interested in social activism,” he said, “I’m interested in the energy that exists in bottom-up movements.”

One of the purposes of SPAFER is to bring academic lectures on aspects of faith and religion to a region in which Fundamentalism tends to be the dominant religious view. Joerg Rieger was one of the best examples of this endeavor to bring relevant insights from academia to the local public. The soft-spoken professor with real-life insights for the faith community was certainly both a challenge as well as a refreshing change from the bombastic words of TV evangelists or the shopping mall culture of the suburban mega churches.

Joerg Rieger has authored many books. Two that are particularly relevant to his SPAFER lectures are Christ & Empire: From Paul to Postcolonial Times, and No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future.

Review & Commentary