Posted by: rogermitchell | January 9, 2014

Love that undoes empire

The “first few days” of the new year are fast passing and I’ve yet to cover how the authority of love undoes empire, empowers the powerless and substantiates a new humanity. Here is how love undoes empire.

As I have pointed out many times, contemporary theological, archaeological and historical research makes it a hundred percent clear that Jesus’ life and teaching confronted the Roman Empire head-on. King Herod in the north of Israel and the high priestly family of Annas and Caiaphas in the south were the puppet representatives of Roman rule. The contemporary inscriptions on buildings and monuments at gave divine titles to Augustus and Tiberias Caesar, titles like ‘Son of God’ and ‘Saviour’ that Jesus applied to himself. In this way the kingdom of love he proclaimed was positioned as a totally different kind of authority to empire from the very start, in order to undo it.

The authority of love undoes empire in three ways:

1. The government of love is demonstrated by love for one’s enemies.

But, as Carl Schmitt, the most influential political philosopher of twentieth century shows, sovereignty is defined by the distinction between friend and enemy. So the authority of love quite literally undoes the very foundations of empire by making my enemy my friend, even at the cost of my own death. Quite literally the authority of love is a government of peace that makes wars to cease. All forms of oppression towards those different to me, for the benefit of my particular tribe, city, people group, religion, culture or civilization is brought to an end by the government of love.

2. The authority of love replaces the fear of lack.

Fear of not having enough, or losing what I have, is basic to empire. Once the creation is understood as a divine gift to be stewarded by the human race and God, then the whole idea of an economics based on fear of lack is negated. Faith in divine generosity issues in a gift based economy that removes the need for dependence on an economics of greed and profit. The supremacy of the market and faith in the ‘benevolent hand’ of free enterprise capitalism is replaced by just trade and the promise of blessing and provision for those who make the welfare of the poor and vulnerable their priority. Luke’s account of Jesus’ words underlines this clearly. “Do not seek what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not keep worrying. For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things. But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you” Luke 12:29-31).

3. Love embraces the penalty for resistance that lies at the base of the sovereignty system.

Jesus started emphasizing the cross from the beginning of his public ministry as the most important sign of what it meant to follow him, long before he began to point towards it as the literal and inevitable culmination of his life. In this way Jesus’ death and resurrection demonstrate the heart of the lifestyle and outcome of the authority of love. It is the heart of kenarchy from which everything else about the government of love flows. It measures an unstoppable authority that eventually carries all before it, not because it insists on its own way, but because it willingly embraces the worst that any alternative force can do.

The work of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben helps us understand what Jesus was doing. He explains what he calls the state of exception that lies behind all sovereign power. It signals the point at which the military, legal and economic norms are suspended when seemingly rebellious or threatening behaviour confronts the existing order. Agamben suggests that the imprisonment and torture without trial in the no-mans land of Guantanamo is the sign of the state of exception in contemporary America. In the Roman Empire of Jesus’ day, it was crucifixion. This is a crucial part of the significance of the cross, and why it featured so soon and centrally in Jesus’ teaching long before his own death. The cross represents the choice to embrace the worst deterrent or punishment that can, will or might be put in place by a sovereign power to stop someone from acting in such a way as to ultimately damage or contradict its self-interest. It is the decision to love one’s enemies in a way that willingly embraces death at the hands of the existing political system if that is the outcome of loving others. In this way the cross and resurrection of Jesus undoes the government of the Roman Empire and the regimes that followed it, including our own Western representative democracy.



  1. It’s good to be reminded of these vital points, Roger. Maybe I can something to the ‘love your empire’ point.

    Loving the enemy also means loving those within your own community who choose to stick with the empire. It is so easy to hate those who you think should be ‘on your side’ but for whatever reason (and it surely must be complicated) choose not to critique empire in the same way as you.

    Blessings on this new year!

  2. Thanks, Dyfed, spot on as usual! This stuff needs earthing, locally, regionally, nationally, internationally. As I see it, those who promote empire models of behaviour are, in that respect enemies of humanity. However kenarchy loves them and aims to make friends out of them, refuses to treat them from a human point of view. This is where the life-rhythm of subversion and submission comes in, that I write about elsewhere.

  3. I spent the day immersed in an institutonal model of empire and the problems it creates. I was at an orientation for new faculty at a local university. At one point during a session on certain teaching methodologies several teachers began to talk about how it was important to maintain power over the students. That the students need to respect the teacher’s authority. And that should the teacher show any weakness, in this case admit to a grading mistake, the students would not respect him/her and the teacher would lose the power he/she needs to have. We would not want to make the mistake of trying to be friends with the students.

    Okay. I was a bit taken aback. I have taught at college and university levels for 10 years and I am used to this kind of talk at the place I currently teach. There the professors are engaged in an ongoing battle with students. War stories are shared amongst the faculty, students are mocked, and plans made to circumvent the obvious attempts by students to challenge the system.

    I don’t think about having power over students so I never know what to say in these situations. My approach is that I am an adult. The students are adults (they are old enough to drink, die in war, and vote that makes them adults). And I approach them with respect and tolerance as I know most are overstretched with too many demands on their lives. I can’t govern or control how someone sees me or understands me. If they see me as weak – well so they do. I only ask that they treat one another and myself with courtesy in class.

    But there is a deep problem here. This is institutionalized academia – a direct outworking and expression of empire. Here is where the students learn their place in empire – where their roles are reinforced. And here is the faculty (many of whom would understand themselves as liberals and even rebels) reinforcing the imperial narrative through the assumptions about the relationship between themselves and the students. In the end it destroys relationships and hence destroys learning. I try to meet my students honestly. My first rule of teaching is to never beat up on a student by using the power given to me. So I don’t know how long I will last as a teacher as I seem to have misunderstood the role of the institution!

  4. Hi Cheryl,
    Thanks for continuing to earth all this in the realities of daily life. Thus far I haven’t personally encountered these attitudes in my own context. But a good friend had his career broken by it. Keeping loving is no easy matter. That’s what the resurrection is the first fruits of as I see it.

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