Posted by: rogermitchell | November 30, 2011

What Would Jesus Do?

Last weekend I led a workshop at the Leeds Summat where I gave I brief overview of my thesis that the contemporary economic crisis is the culmination of the Western church’s partnership with empire. The purpose was to show why the church is both responsible for and marginalised by the contemporary situation, and then to explain why contemporary Marxists and Muslims have a better understanding of the testimony of Jesus than the church does. The Powerpoint presentation that I prepared for this workshop is entitled “in place of sovereignty” and you can view it by clicking on the title and then selecting ‘slideshow’ and ‘view show’ here:
In place of sovereignty

The presentation refers to an article by Mehdi Hasan, the senior political editor of the New Statesman, a Muslim, entitled “What Would Jesus Do?” from last December’s New Statesman, and an article by Terry Eagleton, a Marxist, from the Guardian of Thursday 3rd November 2011. For links to these see Mike Winter’s comment below.


  1. Enjoyed the seminar very much Rog, glad to have been at the Summat, it was excellent. If it helps others

    Terry Eagleton article can be found here

    Mehdi Hassan article can be found here


  2. Okay, so what kind of reception did you get? How did people respond? c.

    • I think folk connected to what I was saying and entered into the workshop quite well in the relatively short time available. For a participant’s reaction see Mike Winter’s comment above. Please could anyone else reading this who was there add their firsthand comment!

  3. I would be very interested in the reaction to this.

    • I will be using this material again in Coventry this coming Saturday. This time instead of 50 minutes, the workshop will be a day event. So hopefully we can get some fuller feedback which I will encourage participants to post here for further comment.

  4. I suppose we are all, one way or another, working in the family delicatessen: it is fascinating how different narratives emerge depending on how we slice history. This must have been something that you faced, Roger, when writing your thesis. How to establish continuity of argument when, as a consequence of the argument, half of the equation almost disappears (the erosion of the church as the incarnation of the kenarchic kingdom and the dethroning of caesar). I’m really looking forward to seeing how you handle that one in your book.

    You take the slice back to the third and fourth centuries. (A good thing to do, I think). A longer slice allows other patterns to emerge. This would go back to the anointing of Saul, David and especially Solomon in order to begin the story with the statehood of Israel. It would establish a more cyclical narrative where Jesus comes as a contradiction to Israel’s degradation which interrupts the progress of her embrace of empire only for us to see it repeated in Christendom and its (or our) exile today. And it would bring with it some astonishing parallels between the modes of Israel’s fall and exile with the same sins being repeated in Christendom. And, I believe, the same coming of God into the impasse to recall the church to her purpose. (An awkward argument to develop because it would almost make the church a revival movement to Israel, and beg the question what is the nature of the revival of the kingdom going to look like in the church? Hardly a popular line because it would make today’s zealots, and perhaps the reconstructionists occupy the seat of the Pharisees.)

    Or we could take a more acute slice across a shorter history.(I was going to give this the image of a more Chorizo slice than Parma slice, but then realized just how 1% that sounds! Hey, I just know about these things, it doesn’t mean I can afford them!) This might tell us how, in the loss we have experienced through the embrace of dominance, we lost our voices and failed to produce an alternative to the rise of both consumerist economics and politics in the twentieth century. (A line followed fruitfully, I think, by Andrew Walker) In particular I am thinking about how silent the church has been against the dominant Freudian understanding of society now standing as the foundation of both free market and electoral processes. I mentioned on Martin’s blog the work of Adam Curtis in tracing this, particularly through the influence of Freud’s family and his nephew Edward Bernase (the proponent of public relations and the process of ‘engineering consent’). This is built into a truly compelling series of documentaries here: The Century of Self which I think speaks both to your thesis and to the consideration of the economic crisis in very pointed ways. (And it’s a great way to spend a whole four hours!!)

    Whether or not you buy into Curtis’ grand narratives, and he is very fond of making them, which is why he does them so well, at least he makes the simplistic and rather fundamentalist objection that the current crisis is just our greed for stuff sound as hollow as it really is. (Although the programmes were made before 2008) Curtis ends the series talking about New Labour after 97 saying:

    “The system of human democracy they have embraced has trapped them into a system of short term and often contradictory policies. There are now growing demands that they fulfil a grander vision: that they use the power of government to deal with the problems of inequality and the decaying social fabric of the country.

    But to do this they will have to appeal to the electorate to think outside their own self-interests. And this would mean challenging the now dominant Freudian view of human beings as selfish, instinct-driven individuals, which is a concept of human beings that has been fostered and encouraged by business because it produces ideal consumers.

    Although we feel we are free, we, like the politicians, have become the slaves of our desires. We have forgotten that we can be more than that, that there are other sides to human nature.”

    That this is a call finding resonance today is beyond question. Adbusters and their Occupy movement are testimony to this. Within this, surely, we must recognize good ground for good seed, a place where kenarchy plants can flourish. We know that the cycles of history are becoming shorter. The coincidence between the intentions of Lloyd George’s 1909 budget that laid the foundations of a welfare-based governance For the people, and Roosevelt’s differently motivated New Deal is not lost, neither is the brevity of the latter. But the social purpose of government has risen and fallen extraordinarily quickly. The difference now, perhaps, is that the church has available better tools than did, say, the reformers of the 19th century as they developed the stories that led to a more compassionate polity.

    In particular I think we can learn again a gospel of the kingdom that begins in the cross and God’s refusal to dominate, in his taking into himself the cause of our demise, and exploring this as a call to realize that our meaning as persons is to bear the image of such a God and that the first part of this is a summons to refuse the manufactured consent of idolatrous autonomy.

    (Whoops, supposed to be a comment, not a flippin essay, Chris!)

    • Just a note on your comments about greed, consumption and life based on meeting our desires . . . my PhD research (oh, yes, I do hope to finally complete the dissertation soon) is on how humans share resources, especially resources closely based on their ecological context, like water. I have read a lot on human behaviour in evolutionary biology, anthropology etc. Interestingly, in the 90’s men dominated the research and focused on the human propensity (and other primates) for conflict. As more women entered the field there has been much new research on human (and other animals) in terms of cooperative relationships, altruism, empathy and trust. We now know much more about those kinds of behaviours. And yes, context and socialization goes far to determine behaviour. My particular interest is in how spatial design can encourage or block empathetic behaviours and the development of trust. We see this kind of thing daily in car dominated cities where you get an increase in road rage and a decrease in courtesy (and safety for all those who drive with cell phones attached to their ears) versus cities that have transit (well-functioning please), meet social and physical needs, provide public spaces. . . you get my drift.

      Used to be the church actually had a role in encouraging empathy but I’m not so sure that happens lots now. I read an article this morning on some mega church in calgary. Lots of what is described as good works but still taking the extra 7million it has on hand to build facilities and parking for itself rather than say housing for low income families. I couldn’t see a lot of Jesus in their activities though I am sure they do.

      The question in our time is how we are actually going to reverse this trend to consumerism, selfish satisfaction of my desires first, entitlement etc and move on with something that will work with the environment and with other people and species. And yes, I look forward also to your book Roger. It will be my Christmas break reading.

      • Without a doubt, Cheryl!

        I think Curtis is on one of the right lines in his series. Taking the view that society is essentially non rational and instinctual is one thing, turning that belief into a definition of personhood based upon satisfying desire, either politically or through products is quite another.

        But there are other lines as well, including technology and the built environment. I used the example before, but can’t remember where, of the effect it had when air conditioning units were engineered at a domestic scale. The first thing architects in the Southern states did was to build houses that had no front porch, no place to sit outside in the evenings. The public front-porch culture disappeared in a couple of decades. The same effect is happening in the interface between businesses and people through the implementation of IT, call centres, online shopping and so on.

        The measurable depersonalisation is leading to evidence of increasing dehumanisation, increases in forms of institutionalism in the behaviour of organizations. More profoundly even than this it is changing the shape of what we think of as public and private. The car is a private space that has to interact with other rapidly moving private spaces. The dynamic is quite different in shared public spaces like transport systems.

        As an aside, I think the oppositions of public and private are going to become a primary arena for conflict over the next twenty years or so. That which calls itself church is going to have to wake up to this and adjust very quickly. I can’t help but think that the changes over the last twenty years or so that have pulled people away from congregational models are part of the Spirit’s preparation for this. But we do need to face up to its implications.

        The church is mostly within the private sphere, and the bigger the walls (and car parks) the more private it becomes. But the church still thinks that it has a public message. So there is a huge discontinuity between the medium and the message. The message, by and large, has become purely propositional and dependent on mass media. This has allowed all sorts of issues to arise, and certainly not just recently. As Israel had, we have become the owners of the message, owners of the identity as the people of God. We have seen God’s response to such attitudes before in Jesus, we will see it again perhaps. The message does not function as a product to be delivered or a territory to be claimed. The message can only be embodied, incarnated, demonstrated. The walls have to come down. The church has to become public simply because, as Newbigin made so clear, she is the vessel of a public gospel, of the story of God’s future.

        And for this to happen, I suggest, we are going to have to redefine the nature and the locations of our separateness. Paul Leader’s recent post on Martin’s blog touchingly refers to this. It is not just Christendom that has defined this separation in the walls of the church, or in cultural trivia or religious neurosis. But these are all the wrong places for separatism. And as you say so eloquently, separatism from God’s world has been a huge mistake.

  5. Thanks for this Chris. Even if it became more of an essay than a comment, it is a very welcome one. It is this kind of interchange and collaboration that we need! And it’s great to see that we continue to be on the same page, or rather the same blog, so to speak! I particularly want to affirm your extension of the genealogy of empire back into Old Testament story. As I see it, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection exposed and abolished Law, Monarchy and Temple as the structures of empire, not the foundations of the kingdom. These were not the Trinity’s original desires for human politics, nor for the Jews who were called to embody a loving relationship with them. And certainly not for the ecclesia who are called to be the body of Jesus today.

    As I see it, when Israel chose the lifestyle of empire despite the warnings, God joined them in it in order to empty it out, which was what the Old Testament story was all about. Jesus came to consummate and reverse the fall of Israel and overcome and abolish empire in so doing. But the church fell all over again. From this perspective the Old and New Testaments provide a narrative that reveals God’s onging response to empire. The people of God in the western world are now called, in Christ, to position themselves within the Western domination system and emulate Jesus’ example as the spirit helps them in order to empty out its sovereign power.

  6. Hi again, Roger. I found your ppt presentation both mouth-watering and frustrating, knowing that I’d missed the Leeds feast! Or to change the metaphor, it was like reading newspaper headlines without the associate articles! I would really like to hear you unpack the point about contemporary muslims and marxists and their understanding of Jesus sometime – or does that come into the book?

    • In a nutshell, I was basically suggesting that the marriage of church and empire has effectively displaced the testimony of Jesus of which the gospel narratives consist. As a result many of the assumptions of the contemporary church and its theology obscure the radical, counterpolitical Jesus. I suggest that the articles by Mehdi Hasan and Terry Eagleton to which I refer, and Mike Winter provides the links to in his comment above, perhaps give a more accurate perspective and apply it more effectively to our currently decomposing western world.

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