BOOK REVIEW: The American Empire and the Commonwealth of God – A Political, Economic, Religious Statement
The American Empire and the Commonwealth of God – A Political, Economic, Religious Statement. John Cobb, Richard Falk, David Griffin and Catherine Keller. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2006.
Based solely on the title, this book appeared to be something that could have some strong revelations on the nature of the American Empire and its relationship with religion. Having read several books from the religious right, including the first volume of the “Left Behind” series (summed up as a compilation of Star Wars, Harlequin Romance, and end of times theology), I thought this volume might have a more rational approach than the fear mongering and devilish rhetoric that saturates the right wing material.
Surprisingly, The American Empire and the Commonwealth of God is quite full of what for many are very common sense observations concerning the nature of the empire. It is not until three-quarters of the way through the volume that religious issues are addressed, and it is definitely not supportive of the evangelical end of times demonizing rants against the evil arising in Iraq and Iran. The four authors (three of whom are professors of theology) have, as would be expected, very similar viewpoints and understanding of the empire, and more surprisingly, have a strong similarity stylistically with their writing such that the reader can hardly tell which author is writing what without referring to the table of contents. That makes for a very clear and coherent read overall, with the work divided into three broad sections: The Nature of the American Empire, Alternatives to the American Empire, and finally, Religious Reflections.
The book starts with a religious conviction, that “We oppose the American empire on the basis of what we believe to be the sacred divinely rooted moral law of the universe” a statement that needs to be juxtaposed against the “universal values” so broadly declared by the empire’s leaders. Given that the “dominant image of the Divine Reality has been easily used to support empire, this image is profoundly wrong, even idolatrous.” From that strongly worded contradiction of the evangelical right, its end of times prophecies, and complicity in the Israeli Zionist project, the authors settle into a fully secular argument.
Quite straightforwardly the authors state “the United States has long been working toward the goal of exercising unchallenged and exploitative control of the planet,” based on the apologists argument that it is an empire “dedicated to the spread of democracy.” In counter-argument, the authors “find nothing in the history of U.S. foreign policy in general or that of the Bush-Cheney administration in particular to lend credibility to this conceit.” The replacement of the present global order, “which is based on violence and other modes of coercion, with a world based on democratic principles will be a shift of enormous magnitude,” but that for this shift, “a threefold vision already exists.”
The first argument presents ideas against the dual beliefs that the empire is both “accidental” and “benign”. The main sources of information here are Andrew J. Bacevich’s American Empire and Chalmers Johnson’s Sorrows of Empire, both of which highlight the purposeful and harmful direction the empire has always had. One item that stood out is the significant amount of money used for the military, estimated at over $760 billion dollars, which amounts to “not one-fifth of federal spending but two thirds of it.” This is a much more realistic comparison of military spending than the artificial comparison to the GDP of which it comprises about five per cent. The GDP is wealth created in all forms in a year; the budget reflects how much the government has to spend yearly on health, education…and the military, a more appropriate comparison.
“Imperialism in American Economic Policy” examines the idea that the economy “is the overall context” of society rather than being only part of a broader society such that education, government and sometimes religion are in the service of the economy. Summaries of the economic development through the post war years follows the now standard reductionist view of an imperial economy that “largely speaks for the transnational corporations,” using the standard examples of economic failure as created by the World Bank, IMF, and WTO. Overall, as with Stiglitz, Chua, and Johnson, the author notes “to this date, not a single country has successfully developed on neoliberal principles,” but to the contrary the successful ones have “taken place on the principles of national economy.” Finally, the economy, currently based on deficit financing, and the foreign ownership of U.S. debt, leads to the simple conclusion, “we are going to be in trouble.”
The view of America as approaching a “Fascist World Order” is argued next with the most “inflammatory” imperial behaviour being how the “United Nations has been used and abused in the Palestine-Israel conflict” because “if the American leadership genuinely wanted to give priority to the challenge of global terrorism, overcoming the Palestinian ordeal by realizing the national rights of the Palestinians would be at the very top of Washington’s policy agenda.” From a religious point of view, even though it is not argued as such at this point, this is in stark contrast to the religious right’s view of the necessity of a unified Eretz Israel over all the lands of Palestine. On further discussion of the double standards towards nuclear proliferation, the author identifies the “maddening arrogance” that “evades the awkward reality that Israel has secretly developed such weapons,” communicating to others “the harsh degree to which American pretensions …on the issue of nonproliferation are geopolitically motivated, self-serving, and abusive with respect to the aspirations of many of the peoples of the world.”
In Part II, “Alternatives to the American Empire”, the authors start with an argument concerning renouncing wars of choice. As a philosophical statement it is strongly idealistic, with the challenge taking “the form of a radical attack on the role of violence as the foundation of global security and the maintenance of the inequality of material conditions.” Underlying this must be the establishment of “a serious and concerted pedagogy of peace within our institutions of learning,” otherwise “it is increasingly difficult to be hopeful about the future.”
While discussing “Global Democracy”, the authors wisely see that reforming the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank as recently argued by Stiglitz is not the way to go. Rather, the “war system” and its sustenance of “anarchy” will face an “inevitable” collapse, comprising both economic and ecological disaster, along with the end of the “idolatry of economic growth.” The solution lies in decentralization, putting decisions into the hands of smaller communities of peoples, then building communities of communities. While not mentioning the UN per se, the descriptions of “moral” NGOs and religions uniting for a cause lead to my considering how this institution can be revitalized to play the role it should serve, as a federated global governance institute. Unfortunately the authors do not postulate any particular institute or organization to lead this unitary cause.
With their turn towards the religious side of the question, the authors discuss the “overt legitimacy” offered to the empire by Christianity, with the “global hegemony” drawing “its aura of sacrality not only from the warring apocalyptic extremities it provokes,” but also requiring “wave after wave of conquest for Christ.” This leads to the demonizing of the ‘other’, the creation of an ‘axis of evil’ (following on Reagan’s “evil empire’ of the 1980s). The “potent merger of elitist idealism with conservative Christian populism has provided the overarching legitimation of our empire,” justifying and legitimating ultimately the right of preemptive and preventative war.
As this work is ultimately designed for arguments concerning a Christian perspective on the empire, the final discussion on a Social Gospel and Liberation Theology leads to a profound anti-empirical statement. As the ideals of Jesus were distinctly anti-imperial vis a vis the Roman conquerors, and it was initially recognized as such and persecuted before it was pre-empted by the Roman state, a renewal of this original viewpoint is expressed very strongly: “Jesus’ teaching of the commonwealth of God…is the deepest grounds for opposition to the American empire,” as those who are Christians “are called to fan the sparks of the message into a flame that can help reverse the headlong plunge of our nation into the lust for world domination.” Perhaps even more strongly worded “the combination of economic and, increasingly, military power to bring the whole world under U.S. control” is a project “like the Nazi project – as antithetical to Christian faith.”
I found The American Empire and the Commonwealth of God very refreshing after reading so much from the apocalyptic right and seeing and hearing so much of the vanity of invoking ‘God’ and the name of Jesus while killing, torturing, terrorizing, and generally subjugating the global population to the dictates of the American empire. Another strength along this line is the lack of discussion of ‘just war’ rhetoric that only justifies and creates apologetics to sanctify war (as supported by Canada’s ‘just warrior’ Michael Ignatieff). While this work relies on other common secular works that argue against empire, it is a worthwhile read to understand that Christianity has strong currents opposed to the imperial project. Hopefully that view, combined with the secular views against the empire that support their views, will one day prove successful, both requiring “courage” to “denounce and work against the American empire.”
Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews to Palestine Chronicles. His interest in this topic stems originally from an environmental perspective, which encompasses the militarization and economic subjugation of the global community and its commodification by corporate governance and by the American government.
First published in Palestine Chronicle, October 04, 2007