In his little book, Faith in the Face of Empire, Mitri Raheb writes regarding hermeneutics, “Interpreting a story is an art that requires much creativity and imagination. It is also a science. It is not an innocent science, but very closely related to empire. The empire wants to control the story-line—its meaning, production, and marketing. It does so consciously and often—far more dangerously—unconsciously” (pg. 23). In less than a week I will be returning to the land where my faith was born. It is a remarkable place with remarkable people. While some have joked that it is a land filled with stones, it is more accurately a land filled with “living stones.”
Over the course of the last five years or so I have learned through the many stories and experiences of the people of the Holy Land that there is no more vivid truth than that this place is an intersection of converging and conflicting narratives. Unfortunately, we live in a world where the power to tell the story is controlled and monopolized by the governing empires. In the United States, the land of my birth, this has taken place in the ways in which the story of history is taught in public, private and home schools and various media outlets. In each context narrative choices are made and claims are put forth as universal truths. In each case these narratives are told from particular perspectives which have been shaped by the governing agencies that approve or disapprove of each telling. In addition there are individual narrative choices made by those in power in the classroom who then directly tell the narrative from a more nuanced and “personal” perspective regardless of any attempts to be objective (whatever that might mean).
Moreover, because we are children of western civilization and more specifically products of modernity we are consequently left with evaluative dichotomies such as, for example, “cowboys vs. Indians,” “north vs south,” “progressive vs. conservative,” etc. Even within academic contexts (where intellectual freedom is supposed to be evident) an underlining nationalistic narrative usually streams through. It is important to recognize that this is not an organic phenomenon. This is an intentional hermeneutical tactic systemic to the institution of nation states that endeavors to not only control the narratives told but more significantly to shape the corporate consciousness in the efforts to homogenize the identity of the resident population. In the United States this took place through “melting pot” rhetoric and intentional attempts to do away with “hyphenated-Americans” (Durnbaugh, Fruit of the Vine, pg. 416). Incidentally, the nonviolent communities of the Brethren, Mennonites, Quakers, Amish suffered under suppression efforts during both world wars as a result of this.
In much the same way, hermeneutical power is wielded around the globe by the empire in the attempt to shape public consciousness. The effort is to erase the “other” narrative in order to attain or sustain power over society. This, however, does not mean that there is no truth telling in the empire’s narrative, only that those truths told are used to place its own narrative in the best possible light to enable the empire’s pursuit of the expansionist goals. The hermeneutical threat that these endeavors pose to the Christian community is that the metanarrative of empire has discovered that “commandeering” the narrative of the Christian religion can have a semi-unifying result under the guise of “Christian nation,” while attempting to divide the Christian metanarrative along cultural and ethnic lines.
The most explicit effects of this can be seen by how the majority of western evangelical Christianity has turned its back on Palestinian Christians by universally accepting and supporting the modern nation state of Israel. The convergence of nationalism, evangelical dispensationalism and Zionism have had devastating effects upon the Christian population in Palestine. The way that the rhetoric of “terrorist” has been widely embraced and universally applied to the population of that region. The socio-political theology behind this convergence contradicts and marginalizes the teachings of Jesus and his sermon on the mount. While for western Christians this may not seem relevant to their experience, the efforts of the empire to delete or obfuscate the “other” narratives is now becoming evident in western society. The temptation is to see this as merely a political controversy. This phenomenon transcends politics; it involves the globalized corporate identity of capitalism and its partner militarism. The nonviolent discipleship of Jesus (Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God, Lamb of God, Immanuel, Redeemer, etc.) followers is more relevant and necessary today than it has been for centuries. The narrative of the “Truth” must be lived and told in such ways that both resist and protest the efforts of the empire. Christians must be diligent in their study and meditation of scripture in the context of humble service to those most vulnerable and oppressed in this world. The hope of God’s kin(g)dom come on Earth as in heaven is nothing more than the liberation of this world from sin and death. What this means is that in the violent throws of the empire, Jesus will be (was, is) victorious through resurrection. The hermeneutical challenge today for western evangelicalism is to find liberation from the universalizing metanarratives of modernity and to re-embrace the “Way, Truth, and Life” of the one who calls them to follow; the one who opens his arms to love even his enemies.