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Christian faith and the crisis of empire.

In Central America our imperial power is being challenged. This, more than the threat of Soviet penetration in the region, is the source of our national anxiety.

At the end of the Second World War Henry Luce announced the beginning of the "American Century." Now, less than four decades later, we realize that we no longer control a dangerous world; more than that, our hegemony is being contested by the little nations on our borders.

For many people of Central America, our pattern of economic development means that the few rich get richer while the masses of the poor get porer. Our support of "democracy" means keeping in power military dictators who preserve order by killing thousands who want to save their children from starvation.

In the face of this, one nation after another is affirming its right to self-determination. These countries want greater economic and political independence from the United States and the freedom to choose the economic system and create the political institutions they believe will serve the best interests of their people.

What we have here is the rejection not merely of North American domination, but of any type of imperial rule.

Many of us find the prospect of a world we can no longer control very threatening, and we fear the loss of the privileges we now enjoy. President Reagan, playing on these fears, has launched an all-out effort to restore American power, no matter what the cost in human lives. Liberal political leaders may be disturbed by what he is doing but seem strangely incapable of challenging his policies or offering alternatives.

Christians, however, should be equipped to respond more creatively to this situation. If we look at our biblical and theological geritage with it in mind, two things stand out. First, the Hebrew prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. lived during the period of decline and fall of the once-great nation of Israel. Most of what they have to say is directly related to that crisis. Second, our classical Christian theology as formulated in the fourth century, which helped lay the foundation for a new and long era of Western history, was worked out against the backdrop of the decline of the Roman Empire.

An exploration of these sources can provide us with a most unusual perspective on the use and abuse of imperial power, which may have something to say to us today as well.

In both instances, the faith response to imperial decline came from those outside its structures of power.

This is clearly the case with the prophets. J. Severino Croatto, an Argentinian scholar, says of them:

The prophets place themselves in confrontation with the power structure, and almost always from within the community of the people. The prophets are rarely from among the power elite; they rise from the grassroots or, at least, speak on the basis of their identification with the bottommost strata. Even when they criticize the people of Israel, they do not do so as powerholders but by using the single weapon of their word. (Exodus: The Hermeneutics of Freedom)

As for the theologians of the fourth century, they belonged to a community that had been persecuted on and off for 300 years. They had no place in the sophisticated circles of the philosophers or among those who exercised power in the state. Athanasius, one of the leading architects of this theological counterculture, lived far from the center of the empire, in Alexandria, and was sent into exile five times by the Roman emperor.

If we take this history seriously, theological reflection on U.S. policy in Central America should begin in grassroots communities of faith made up largely of marginalized people.

Central American Christians who are the victims of our imperial power; Salvadoran refugees in our midst whose lives were threatened because they were active in basic Christian communities; blacks, Hispanics, and others pushed to the fringes in our own society: these are the people with whom we should gather to read the Bible and reflect on what it has to say about the future of our nation. Special attention should be given to the contribution of women to this process. For their insights into the relation of faith to issues of imperial power, which have never been heard, are of the utmost importance at this time.

Within such communities, we can hear once again two central affirmations of the prophets and the early theologians:

The pursuit of justice is more important than the survival of the nation. Those who live by faith analyze what is happening around them from this perspective. They are compelled to denounce injustice and, on occasion, warn their nation of impending doom.

Amos sees Yahweh marching through history, measuring each nation with the plumbline of justice. And the test of justice is what happens to the poor. For Augustine, the fundamental struggle of history is between the "love of power" in imperial societies and the "power of love" in the City of God. This understanding enables him to see the deficiencies of the established order and anticipate the fall of Rome.

The decline and fall of empire can become the occasion for the emergence of a new and more human social order. Beyond the fall of Israel the prophets envision a messianic era, in which the little people, who are the victims of hunger, oppression, and fear, will enjoy a full and safe life; a time of peace when oppression will have been overcome. In the Magnificat, Mary announces not only that her child will hasten the dawning of this longed-for era; she declares that in this new age the wealthy and powerful will fall while the poor and powerless will be raised up.

Augustine's thought is dominated by a millennial vision of a divine society, a kingdom of goodness; his eyes are fixed on the life of "the world to come." Athanasius, in his treatise On the Incarnation, is not overwhelmed by the crisis of the empire because he is so impressed by the transformation of human life occurring wherever the Christian message is preached, and by the willingness of so many young men and women to die for it.

Although this radical transformation of perspective may not be very evident at the heart of our empire today, it is certainly happening on the fringes. For a surprising number of men and women in Central America, identification with the poor and participation in their struggle has become the supreme reality, more important than the survival of a society offering them wealth and power. As they follow this road, they are surprised by the discovery of new life and purpose, and find the strength to face persecution and possible death.

In the midst of all this, Central Americans are convinced that they are engaged in creating something new: a new economic, social, and political order oriented not only toward meeting the material needs of the poor but also toward offering them a place of significance and the possibility of exercising power. A Salvadoran theologian, Ignacio Ellacuria, calls it "a new type of economic development, and, at a deeper level, a new type of civilization, which we will be able to call, with pride, a civilization of and for the poor."

Because of their belief in the divine activity in history--and their unusual perspective on it--prophets and theologians could claim that they were not wild utopian dreamers but the most realistic of persons.

Yahweh was the Lord of nature and history, and what Yahweh was about was the practice of "kindness, justice and righteousness in the earth." (Jer. 9:24) Consequently, only those who perceived how Yahweh's judgment operated could understand realistically what was happening in and to Israel. For Jesus the issue was that of reading rightly "the signs of the times": signs of decay in the existing order, as well as the little signs of new life for the poor, the oppressed, and the captives.

For the theologians of the fourth century, the God who was active in history had become incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. As a result men and women who believed in and responded to Jesus were free to perceive the presence and work of the Redeemer in all spheres of life and history. In their struggle for the transformation of the world, Christians were simply apprehending the potentialities already present in the situation.

These theological formulations may not be as compelling for some of us as they were for earlier generations. Whether they are or not, life in a community of faith can lead us to make a wager: that the crisis of empire and the violence and chaos which accompany it are opening the way for the emergence of the little people of the world; that the decline of U.S.--and Russian--power is a major factor contributing to this, and that we as a nation will have a place in the emerging international order to the degree that we participate in this process.

Guided by such a vision, Christians will have some important things to say about our foreign policy as it relates to third world countries:

(1) In a democracy, national self-interest can only be conceived of as that which serves the interests of the people, not a small elite with power and wealth. The great majority of American citizens have little to lose and much to gain with the emergence in Central America of societies serving the aspirations of the poor.

Repressive regimes that kill labor leaders and keep wages low benefit multinational corporations; they do not serve the interests of the American people. When the U.S. government imagines that it has the responsibility to take over little countries, "keep them in their place," or even tell them how to organize their economic and political institutions, it is the victim of a colonial mentality which has dehumanizing consequences at home as well as abroad.

(2) National security depends upon the establishment of social peace at home as poverty and exploitation are overcome. It also depends on the strengthening of regimes in Central America attempting to meet the aspirations of the poor. Our obsession with security through military might is, in part, a reflection of our fear of the poor people of the world. It is also self-defeating. Exclusive reliance on military power and the suppression of third world movements for justice inevitably lead to the escalation of insecurity around the world.

In this perspective, a strong positive relationship on our part with the government of Nicaragua can contribute to our national security; our support of the military regime in El Salvador can only work against it.

(3) Our nation stands to gain by supporting the new democratic developments in Central America: the application of our democratic ideal in the economic sphere, and the encouragement of popular movements which give the common people new opportunities to exercise public power at the local and national levels.

In fact, our contact with them could contribute to the revitalization of our society. These new developments expose the limitations of our democratic institutions and suggest a worthy goal for the future transformation of our national life. Moreover, if and when the United States encourages authentic third world struggles toward democracy, our government will no longer have to deceive us, calling brutally repressive regimes "democratic," and presenting a deliberately distorted picture of what is happening under their rule.

(4) Stimulated by our religious heritage and the example of Central American Christians, we will find ourselves compelled to look more closely at the injustices in our own society.

Our affluence is due in part to our exploitation of the poor people of the world. We have set the terms for our appropriation of their natural resources and the prices for the purchase of their agricultural products. Now multinational corporations take advantage of cheap labor there to feed our lust for consumption here. We can continue along this path only if we rely more and more on military power to keep rebellious, starving people in line.

The alternative is to find new ways to use our enormous wealth, our technological advances, and our economic power to meet the needs of our own people and support the efforts of poor nations to become more self-sufficient. To do this, one thing is necessary: a fundamental change in our economic system. In the long run, this may well be the most important step we can take toward national security and world peace.

(5) We can help people around us overcome their fear of communism, and in so doing, respond wisely to the real threats it may present to us.

Here again, Christians in Central America have taken the lead. They have discovered that their faith in Jesus Christ leads them to make a total commitment to the cause of the poor. When they do this, they are denounced as communists and harassed. Often their lives are threatened. This opens their eyes to the way the fear of communism is used to keep the poor in their place at any cost.

At the same time, they meet Marxists who are also committed to the struggle for justice and find that they need not be afraid of them. As Christians move to the forefront of the revolutionary struggles, they see themselves building a society which may follow a socialist pattern, but will be neither "Marxist-Leninist" nor under the domination of Russia or Cuba.

Their experience suggests that a similar commitment on our part to the struggle for justice at home and abroad would go a long way toward restoring our national sanity.
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Author:Shaull, Richard
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Apr 1, 1984
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