Anxious About Empire: A Conversation with Professor Wesley Avram

Since the fall of 2000, Wesley Avram has served as the Clement-Muehl Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at Yale Divinity School. He is the contributing editor of the newly published book Anxious About Empire (Brazos Press, 2004). Tyler Stevenson ‘04 recently sat with Professor Avram to discuss the origination of this very timely publication and the essays contained in it.

REFLECTIONS How did this book project begin?

AVRAM There were three prompters for the book, all of them circumstantial. The first began at a faculty dinner here at the Divinity School a couple of years ago. One of the faculty emeriti came up to me after the dinner and said that we need to talk about what’s happening in the world, the administration’s response, and all that was going on in the Middle East at the time. He asked, “What can we do?” At the time I said, glibly, “Well, probably nothing.” But I thought about it, and I came back and said, “We need to write a book.”

A few months later I was directed to Robert Bellah’s essay in Commonweal, which came up about a month after the National Security Strategy (NSS) document was published by the White House in September of 2002. In that essay Bob Bellah specifically calls on the church to pay attention to what the Bush administration was saying at the time, and he offered his own critique, writing as a sociologist but also as a Christian. He wrote of the NSS as a blueprint for empire, and he began to talk about how the country is not prepared to take up the kind of charge described in the document. This got my thinking going even further on the project.

While I was inviting people to consider writing for this kind of book, each member of the faculty here at YDS received in their mailbox a letter from the Alumni Board, signed by all its members, as a cover letter to the NSS. The Board called on the faculty to offer some kind of public response—theological and rooted in the church—to this document. They didn’t tell us how to respond but they called on us to respond. This book was already underway at that point, but certainly that call gave it an interesting nudge. There are plenty of political responses out there. What was needed was a group of provocative essays rooted in the church and offering an ecclesially based response to things that are happening in the world in the wake of September 11, 2001. Each person I invited to contribute to the book was sent a copy of the NSS. I didn’t ask that every essay specifically address the NSS, but that it be lingering in the background, that it fill in some sense of the imagination of the writers as they wrote their responses. That’s what we find, that some of the writers explicitly address that document and others are much more indirect and don’t refer to it at all, but are nevertheless informed by it.

REFLECTIONS You say in your introduction to the book that the book is attempting to get a “word in edgewise” in the midst of rhetoric, and I take it that this word in edgewise is speaking to this ecclesially based response that you refer to. How do you see this happening, as far as the book’s audience and reception? Where do you hope it goes; who do you hope reads it; where do you hope it gets talked about?

AVRAM I have my optimistic response and my less optimistic response. My optimistic response is a hope that this becomes a word in a conversation that’s already taking place; that pastors will pick up a book like this, and other books like it that are coming out; that passionate lay people will pick up the book; that it will become a source of conversation in adult study groups in the church. I think it would be a good secondary textbook in a Christian college class on social ethics, for example, as a way of showing how an ecclesially interested critique of contemporary events might be formed. 

My less optimistic response is that we are so overwhelmed right now in our culture with arguments and rhetoric that is so infused with religious symbolism that I don’t know how to get such a word in edgewise. You look at the Republican convention—and the Democrats have this too—and see the entire convention center set up like a church, with the President speaking behind the pulpit in the center of a megachurch. You realize that he is using a kind of language that’s so infused with religious symbols that one wonders how the church can speak, when its language is so taken over by the culture.

I’m convinced that that similarity of the convention setting to a megachurch was not lost on the planners of the convention. American campaign rhetoric and presidential rhetoric has been full of Biblical imagery for a long time, but there has been a shift of late. One of the book’s essays, by Steven Chapman, talks about this shift to a New Testament rhetoric of identity, a christological rhetoric wherein the nation is associated with Christ. It’s the light in the darkness and the light cannot and will not be put out—there’s even a shift from past to future tense. Rather than Old Testament imagery of a city set on a hill, with America as a new Israel with a sense of mission attached to it—there are problems with that kind of imagery, too, of course—the new kind of rhetoric that we hear still has a sense of burden and mission, but it’s less open to prophetic self-critique. However problematic, at least the image of a new Israel has a place in it for the prophet’s call to justice. The Messianic rhetoric has less of that. That’s a challenge to the church.

REFLECTIONS If we understand the U.S. as Christ, it might seem that the U.S. is attempting in this war on terror to undo the work of the Fall, which would be an incoherent notion for Christians. Is that one of the trip wires that Christians ought to notice in this document? 

AVRAM Absolutely. There is a double bind when we hear on one hand that this is a battle to root out evil and that only we have the tools or wisdom to root that evil out, and on the other hand that this is a battle that has no end, with an enemy that has no identity. So, we have images of America as simultaneously Messiah, a child wailing and flailing at phantoms in the night, and a clearheaded, take-no-prisoners strategist who alone has the tools to undo the threat of the enemy. Those images can’t survive together, but they run through not only presidential rhetoric, but the NSS and all that’s happening today—and in the end they will undo us, as they undo the rest of the world.

REFLECTIONS It strikes me that Christic imagery you referred to earlier would provide the perfect closed circle against external criticism, because Jesus is always misunderstood in the Gospels, but he perseveres because of his secret knowledge of divine sanction. If this rhetoric and this rhetorical style can point us to an adoption of a Christic identity by a political entity, then that would be something that Christians need to look at with alarm—or, more alarmingly, that some Christians look upon with approval.

AVRAM Yes, and alongside victim-hero-messiah rhetoric is another shift—from the politician as honorable leader to the politician as receiver of the nation’s—Christ’s—pardon. Part of the shift—I’m sure there are other precedents—was seen in President Clinton’s response to the Monica Lewinsky affair, where the power of confession was supposed to demonstrate the proper righteousness to lead. The great second chance. That’s the appeal that I heard in the end of President Bush’s address at the Republican convention, that it is no longer honor and integrity that gives moral credibility and weight to lead, but the power to embody a destiny and to triumph over failure. So he makes a kind of odd sort of confession at the end of his address, asking for a strange type of forgiveness without any change of direction, what Christians would call repentance, and seeking a sympathy vote. He wants to receive a second chance because the difficult decisions are so painful for him. What I missed in that entirely was a more traditional sense that there is an honor to leadership that can be breached, even though the individual be forgiven. One can lose the credibility, or honor, of leadership even though one confesses one’s pain. Whether the nation has honored this well or not, has there not been at least a general affirmation that the word of a leader is a leader’s bond? Surely one could look at the Iraq war and ask—having made the claims the president and secretary of state made before the war—whether they have in fact lost the honor to lead. Yet I’m not sure that way of thinking has strong legs in American politics anymore. This other kind of language—of calling and confession—has overlaid the whole thing. If the nation is a Christ figure, after all, it doesn’t require a righteous and wise leader so much as it needs a mediating priest or preaching pastor.

REFLECTIONS After reading your essay, I wanted to find out a bit more about your theology of the church and the state. For instance, you say that the end of the cold war took more than Reagan, and you cite particularly Christian individuals and elements: a Polish Pope, Christian Polish dockworkers, a secretly baptized Gorbachev. How might a government take these into account? Or are the observations in your essay designed not so much to say that the government ought somehow to be interdisciplinary—that is, it ought to be paying more attention to religion—but that Christians ought to recognize that the story the government tells is not the final word?

AVRAM That question is one that continues to work its way through the essays in the book, with some of the authors disagreeing with each other. For example: though they’re not directly in response to each other, there’s an interesting difference between the essay by Jean Bethke Elshtain and Allen Hilton. Professor Elshtain offers a reading of the Christian Just War tradition. She is trying to argue for a kind of positive interventionism, warranted not in a humanitarian interest in merely alleviating suffering, but in recognition of the dignity of others who are making a claim about the injustice done to them. I find that very moving. I think that I could easily make a case on that bases, for example, for American positive—even military—intervention on behalf of suffering Palestinians on the basis of their claim to equal human dignity. But I doubt that her argument will ever be used that way in policy circles, even though I think it could and should. And that leads to Allen Hilton’s argument. He argues that a state is finally not capable of genuinely other-interested action. A state is only capable of self-interested action, and so to expect a state to intervene on behalf of the dignity of another people is finally to commit a category error—in the end, only the church can do that, as broken and sinful as the church may be. Only organizations that are non-governmental, rooted in forms of connection that transcend nation states, are capable of working across boundaries and across political presumptions to produce and nurture the good that can be radically revolutionary, other-interested, and self-giving. 

I don’t know that the debate that I describe between Elshtain and Hilton is answerable, except to say that it’s a debate that the church must have continually. We must continually ask ourselves what stake we have, as Christians, in secular politics versus the interests we have in our God-given connections to believing brothers and sisters throughout the world and our God-mandated compassion for neighbors how may not be believers but who God has put in our way. I use the language of “neighbor” here echoing the essay of David Johnston, in which he asks the question about Muslims as our neighbors, using the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example—asking what, then, is our obligation to people who aren’t our brothers and sisters, but may be our neighbors? There’s something to be admired in the idealism that finds its way into the NSS in places, but the point of this book is to demonstrate that Christians have different stakes and different reasons in thinking of the world than the state—and so have reason to challenge the state on their terms, while not confusing the state for the church. 

REFLECTIONS Earlier you said that your most optimistic goal would be that the book would be read by passionate laypeople, and pastors, and be the subject of church conversation. You haven’t portrayed the book as something you hope policymakers read and change their theological outlook. I wonder how that works with certain claims made in the book, and in your essay in particular. At one point, for instance, you write that we must honor institutions like the U.N., the ICJ, the war crimes tribunal. I wondered to whom you direct the force of that “must.” Does that mean, for instance, Christians should honor these institutions and reflect that in their voting and their democratic involvement? In the end, what do you hope this book calls Christians to do?

AVRAM I wish a I had a clear answer for that question, but I don’t, in part because I’m very tempted by what I understand to be Stanley Hauerwas’ argument, that before the church can be political, the church needs to be a new kind of politics. This doesn’t at all mean that we ought to exclude political activity, but that the first question we should always ask is what is the peculiar politics, or the peculiar way, of the church in the world? What ar our primary obligations as a baptized people? My baptism makes a prior claim, you see. I’m also strangely tempted by Jacques Ellul’s taking that a step further and saying that Christians should be nonviolent anarchists; that we do not acknowledge the powers and principalities of the world as being in any way determinative of who we are. Ellul even went to the point of saying that voting is not a sacred obligation of Christians. Because we are citizens of another realm, Christians don’t need to vote. I’m tempted by that. Yet I also know that I am nevertheless deeply rooted in this world. I mean, I am not among those who choose to resist paying taxes, but even if I were to do so, that wouldn’t mean that I wasn’t still implicated in injustice. I am a citizen of this state, engaged in this polity, and do have some responsibility to it. Nevertheless, I know that the state is but one tool available to meet Christian obligation in the world. It’s not a Christian entity; it’s a tool, and I’m responsible for thinking about how it might be used without doing harm. Because of that, it is a peculiar and dangerous burden that we’ve been given as Christians who are also citizens of this country. 

REFLECTIONS So in this “we must…” you think, “the country must…”

AVRAM Christians may argue that the nation must support international institutions so that power is not unfettered. If I take Jean Elshtain’s argument seriously that the dignity of others is a key to any Christian claiming of a Just War tradition, and if she wants to make the move of saying that the state can be an agent for good in the world on the basis of these parameters, then I think there is a burden to ensure that ample venues exist in which others in the world can make a claim regarding injustices done to them. These venues must exist so that the kind of terrorism that comes out of sheer and utter frustration—and there is both frustrated terrorism and malevolent terrorism, with the former being action taken out of utter hopelessness and attendant rage—can be quelled through avenues in which people can make claims about injustices and receive redress. And it’s not just international institutions that can provide such a forum, because the church is also a place where many people can make these claims. It may even be a better place for some, and it has always served as this.

REFLECTIONS You say that there’s no explicit definition of terrorism in the NSS, and you offer a definition that I’ll paraphrase: terrorism is an attempt to manipulate people or policies through the cultivation of terror. Then you add the thoughtful clause: “Against the powerful, terrorism is the cultivation of the fear of anarchy. Against the weak, it is domination and the arbitrary exercise of power and authority.” This struck me because I realized that in our vernacular usage of the word “terrorism,” it does not seem conceptually to be something that can be exercised against the weak; that our usage of the word treats terrorism as, de facto, something that is exercised against the strong. I started to wonder, could there be terrorism against the weak, and, what would this mean to our War on Terror?

AVRAM I think that there’s absolutely no way forward without a first conversation about that question, however well or unwell I’ve articulated it in my essay in the book. I simply don’t see that first conversation taking place, except in very small circles. Until we can have that first conversation better than we’ve had it, the nation will continue to make mistakes, and these mistakes may accumulate to the point where one false move will bring many houses tumbling down. So that first conversation isn’t simply about “Why do they hate us so much?” but is also “What is the nature of terror in our world?” and “How does terror dominate our world in many ways?” I am informed in this by having lived on the West Bank and having seen a population subdued through systematic use of terror as I’m describing it: a kind of unpredictability and arbitrariness that manipulates a population. I realize, too, that there is a certain sensibility of terror on the other side in that particular conflict. So you have a kind of terror reigning on both sides. But to assume therefore that terrorism is only a particular technique of hate and resistance—a suicide bomb, for instance—is to miss those contexts of terror that rule entire cultures and are wielded by the powerful as well as the weak. It explains why the death of civilians in a helicopter raid or the humiliation of parents in the presence of their children is a kind of terror. It explains why a frightened soldier’s firing of a weapon, unauthorized, into a crowd of demonstrators is also a kind of terror. That’s a form of terrorism, too, because that manipulates a population. Or someone who is trying to get over the border with medicine for a parent and watches that medicine thrown into the garbage by a soldier, arbitrarily, with no justification, and having no recourse, after having spent six months of income on that medicine. One needed argue moral equivalence with a suicide bomber to make the point of how terror still works.

REFLECTIONS It seems like there’s a lot to preach on. I’m thinking of the imagery of the Strong Man in Mark, and Jesus’s persistent commandment to be not afraid, in juxtaposition with what you’re describing as a land ruled by fear.

AVRAM The frightening thing is that on the other side of terror are two kinds of fearlessness. The one is the fearlessness of someone who has nothing left to lose or an imagined glory to gain, and so acts out of rage and fervor. The other kind is the fearlessness of the one who has all to gain and therefore acts proactively, out of love: a fearlessness born of love. There are always examples of both of those in any conflict, and we need to find ways of reaching out as Christian people and nurturing the second kind of fearlessness.

REFLECTIONS In your essay you refer to the NSS as a series of epigrams, followed by interpretations, and you observe that its structure resembles a confession of faith. I wanted to ask you—as a rhetorician, as a student and interpreter of Scripture, as a pastor and a preacher, and as someone coming out of a highly confessional tradition—what do you make of this structural appropriation?

AVRAM It was striking to me, and I may well have noticed it because I come out of the Reformed tradition, so the form is familiar. It does seem to be a classic confession of the faith, in which there is an authoritative text—scripture—that leads a section and then there is provided an exposition that becomes the authoritative guide to interpreting the inspired texts. But, in this case, the inspired texts are quotes from President Bush’s speeches. That’s what structures the national security document of the United States. I work hard to convince myself otherwise, but I am increasingly convinced that we flirt with great danger right now, as this conflict, however it’s defined in the world, increasingly becomes a religious one. All of the American political attempts to argue otherwise fail in the face of this kind of religious overlay on American self-presentation right now, even with something as subtle as the NSS’s structure. You’d be hard pressed to say that this is not a holy war. And that’s not the place I want to go, if only because it somehow makes the case of those who are doing the terror today in the name of holy war. 

REFLECTIONS The NSS talks a lot about freedom, and presents itself as a document in defense of freedom. I looked for definitions of freedom in the NSS, and it didn’t really seem to have one. If I had to characterize it, I’d say that freedom in the NSS is about the freedom of individual self-determination, and this document defines a strategy that seeks to remove restrictions thereto. Is that what you see freedom being in the NSS, and then, what do you see freedom being to the Christian?

AVRAM This is a very winsome view of freedom, and one that any reasonable, thinking person who has enjoyed the benefits of liberal democracy would or could support. But, what if another people in another context, in their own patterns of self-determination, decide they don’t want to live that way? America’s not going to let that happen. I daresay that the last thing that was imagined when our current government went into Iraq was a Shiite theocracy—a second Iran. We’re not going to let that happen, likely. So we understand the only possible polity in which this kind of freedom could take place is one that imitates ours. There’s no acknowledgement that there could be other goods possible in the world in addition to these, other goods that interpret how these are lived out. I’m certainly not defending the Taliban in describing that, for the Taliban was an imposition on Afghanistan, too. Yet it’s certainly difficult to watch what’s happening in Afghanistan now and see that as the bringing of freedom, when the poppy harvest is greater than it’s ever been, there are still warlords ruling, it seems that the glimmers of rights of women are being taken away bit by bit, and there’s violence and poverty. It’s hard to see what we have brought there as a prescription for what is described in the NSS, unless freedom and self-determination are simply equivalent to having an election of some sort. That seems like an awfully empty shell, to me. So it leaves me wondering if there’s any place in the world for interpreting the values of freedom within a different polity than Western democracy. We as Americans can testify to our ways of doing these things, but we can’t impose them. It’s a hard question. I wish there were an easy answer.

REFLECTIONS In Section II of the NSS, under the goal of “Champion Aspirations for Human Dignity,” it reads, “History has not been kind to those nations which ignored or flouted the rights and aspirations of their people.” History, however, is not kind to any nation. I wonder what you might think the Alpha and the Omega says to nationalism, and what a Christian view of time says to nationalism? What sort of burden, if any, might that put on a country?

AVRAM Some argue that the nation-state structure is no longer what it was when it was imagined at its best—a political culture designed to keep peace and be more powerful than economic culture—and that economic culture now rules and the state simply serves economic interests. I think the church is always implicated, but the church has the potential within it of forming people that can embody an alternative polity, can be a critique. Eugene MacCarraher’s essay has perhaps the strongest language in the book, and he tries to go right to that point. In it, he calls on Christian intellectuals—particularly those interested in political theory and culture—to set aside for now the conversation that’s tended to dominate public theology in the past ten or fifteen years regarding the nature of civil society, and to take up now a call to name and critique the powers and principalities that rule the world. One is the nation state. One is the corporate dominance. Another is technique and technology. I think that we need also as Christian people to critique the kind of unfettered trust in technology that seems to be ruling the so-called war on terror.

We need to do so well aware that we likely will not win. If we set out to try to win an argument and to make American policy more Christian, well, if we set out to do that as baptized people that’s a fight we’re going to lose. The fear is that we’ll end up becoming more like those who oppose us. We need to give up the hope of winning the argument and just begin to become more faithful. And it’s painful. I’m Presbyterian, and it’s really hard for Presbyterians because we’re used to having a really big stake in civil society, and I think we’ve got to rethink that.

REFLECTIONS I want to close by asking you to reflect on the future. In Lillian Daniel’s essay, she refers to the teenager whose comments at their local conference meeting were the unselfconscious seeds of a sort of constructive theology of empire. Instead of saying, “We shouldn’t do such-and-such because it’s imperial,” he was saying, “We have the power; what do we do with it?” Thinking long-term, observing the trajectory of affairs as you perceive them, do you think this theology of empire should be a theological priority for the next decade, and perhaps the next twenty, thirty, fifty years? Or, do you think that there’s a different task at hand for theologians in the academy, pulpit, and pew?

AVRAM I think there are multiple tasks. I realize very well that the day-to-day task of most Christians is to live faithfully wherever they are—in the face of children and at PTA meetings, in the soup kitchen line where they wait, wherever. Live faithfully in that context, walk decently on the earth as a person baptized into Christ. That doesn’t change. It was the same on September 10, 2001, as it was on September 12, 2001. Things did not change in that way. Nevertheless, it’s been given to some people in the church to pay very close attention to the theology of empire that’s being worked out and, on the one hand, to write a positive one, recognizing that this may be what’s happening despite anyone’s best efforts, and, on the other, to offer a strong critique and to argue for a kind of subversive orthodoxy in the midst of power.

I recognize fully the irony of arguing against empire when it is the trappings and resources of empire that give me the freedom and salary to do it. If I’m not that self-critical, then my words ring hollow. So, recognizing my complicity, I think it is incumbent upon me and other Christian doers and thinkers now to look very honestly at what’s happening in the world and argue for a different way.

Lillian Daniel’s essay on the worship of the church as a place where alternative visions or glimpses of another reality can be seen—sometimes quite accidentally—was put at the end of the book quite intentionally. I want Christian worship to be the place where an alternative is imagined. It would be a mistake to read this book as an instance of well-meaning Christians talking about politics. What I mean this book to do—and I’ve failed if it doesn’t do this—is to participate in another way of thinking about the church that’s not a withdrawal from the world, but engages the world with a new set of rules. These rules begin by imagining the church as a place where our worship is liberating and radical and comforting at the same time, and therefore becomes the occasion for new, Godly, possibilities.