Imperial and Eschatological Politics

D. Brent Laytham

The concluding stanza in Charles Wesley’s “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” hymns the reality that empire parodies.

Changed from glory into glory,
till in heaven we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Here we sing the eschatological reality, not of an empire established and triumphant, but of the nations gathering into Zion to worship the Lion of Judah. This eschatological community is rehearsed in three dimensions: the affective: they wonder; the praxiological: they love; and the discursive: they praise. To be “lost in wonder, love, and praise” is to dwell in an eschatological politics that is perfected in three dimensions: orthopathy, orthopraxy, orthodoxy. (These three dimensions are used by Theodore Runyon to assess and appropriate John Wesley’s thought in The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today [Abingdon, 1998].)

Empire has always parodied God’s consummating community, whether it be Babel, Rome, or more modern versions. (Joseph Mangina makes this point in his theological commentary on Revelation [Brazos, 2010], 81.) The capacity to wonder is usurped by pride, or fear, or greed. The praxis of love distorts into coercive violence, or extractive economy, or homogenizing colonization in the name of some finite good. The vocation to praise is disordered into false speaking — propaganda, hyperbole, salesmanship.

These distortions of the affective, praxiological, and discursive are not just effects of empire, but causes that create and sustain it. Each one is premised on a finitude masquerading as ultimate value, infinite horizon, encompassing community. Fear idolizes the threat of dispossession, as pride idolizes the empire itself, and greed is the idolatry of infinite desire for finite goods. Thus, empire is created out of, and perpetuates, a heteropathy of idolatrous desire oriented to various finitudes, impervious to the wonder of Yahweh’s infinite beauty and Christ’s cruciform glory.

In the same way, where an infinite goodness is attributed to finite creatures (whether home and hearth, family and fatherland, or nation, market, or governmental system), love will coerce, colonize, and extract in blissful ignorance of its idolatrous distortion. So empire promises to protect us from violence — by doing violence (or demonstrating its credible threat); to provide us the goods of the good life — by depriving and dispossessing other places and peoples; and so it goes. Empire is created out of, and perpetuates, a heteropraxy of idolatrous loves that are disordered precisely because they lack focus in the infinite goodness of the Suffering Servant.

Likewise, heterodox discourses — patterns of speech which ascribe glory falsely — are both source and symptom of empire’s refusal of a politics ordered to and by truth.

So empire is at one and the same time an idolatrous distortion of the transcendental predicates of being (beauty, goodness, and truth) and an eschatological parody of the wonder, love, and praise toward which we and all creation goes. Ontologically, it locates ultimacy in various finitudes. Eschatologically, it directs affections, actions, and imaginations toward finite hopes. Worst of all, politically it obscures the one in whom the transcendental predicates take flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews, lord of creation. What empire parodies, he incarnates: a regal beauty, kingly goodness, lordly truth. Wesley’s hymn reminds us in its penultimate line that the politics of empire is a parody of the reign of Christ the king: “Till we cast our crowns before him.”

This line does more, however, than invoke the reigning Christ as eschatological politics. It also invokes our participation in his rule. The phrase “our crowns” suggests that we have found a share in Christ’s regency. Thus, the same eschatological vision that reveals empire’s parody of divine politics hints at our participation in it. In other words, Christ’s sovereignty is not exclusive but inclusive, a rule in which we share. The church is not just ruled by Christ, but reigns with him. Thus, as we sing “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” we not only expose empire’s parody because we anticipate our heaven below; we also oppose empire as we participate in Christ’s rule in heaven above.

Posted Sep 15, 2014

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