Roger Mitchell – Church, Empire and the Politics of Love

If ever there’s a time for radical theology, it’s now. Why? Because we must dig beneath the surface of our western system or nothing will permanently change for the better. Why is it that so many of us sense that this general election won’t really change things, whoever wins? Like me, you may be glad that Jeremy and Co are daring to challenge the Thatcherite neo-liberal consensus. But even if they were to win, the party-political system of our representative democracies is simply overlaid on centuries of superficial multiplications and transformations of the partnership between church and empire. A partnership based on what I call the “sovereignty delusion” that the hierarchical power of status and money is the only way to peace. Past Labour governments with an even more radical agenda didn’t ultimately bring lasting change. Marxist Leninist revolution in the USSR only exchanged capitalist sovereignty for socialist sovereignty. As I see it, a big positive of the coming election in the context of Brexit and Trump is that it underlines how impotent our contemporary democracies are. We need radical tools for excavating below the surface of the system to cultivate a politics of love.  As Jeremiah heard it “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (Jer 1:10)

Image provided by Roger Mitchell. Used with permission.

I suggest four tools for radical disciples to employ: A John-type theology, a Jesus hermeneutic, an empire detector and a politics of love.

A John-type theology. The obvious difference between the first three synoptic gospels and John’s is that he brings a theological framework to bear from the start. The word “theology” is made up of two Greek words, theos and logos. Hence theology. These two words are basic to the first statement of John’s gospel: “In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word (logos) was with God (theos) and the Word (logos) was God (theos)” (Jn1:1). The following verses tell us that Jesus of Nazareth is that Word (logos) made flesh and dwelling among us in our world (Jn1:14) and that this logos is theos. At the heart of John’s theology is the investigation of this alignment between God, Word and World that is Jesus. There is no space to offer an overall exposition of Johannine theology here. But two key texts are the famous John 3:16 that emphasises that the Word that is God so loved the world that they gave, and the footwashing incident of John 13 that demonstrates how this loving giving undoes the demonic power of the world system by elevating the lowest position with honour and love.

A Jesus hermeneutic

The obvious implication of Johannine theology is that we need to filter everything through a Jesus lens. So while recognising that Jesus is a Jew located in a particular cultural background, this Old Testament and Jewish heritage needs to be subjected to the Jesus story and not the other way round. My own young adult encounter with the love of God in the context of the Jesus narrative led me to conclude that the Jesus of the gospels is both the Jesus of history and the God of eternity. This upended my fundamentalist background that formulated theology from scripture generally and not from Jesus specifically and which had presented me with a toxic Christianity that I was otherwise about to abandon. A God demanding unquestioning obedience and appeasement is, in my view, an invitation to atheism. Put simply, a Jesus hermeneutic means that if anything doesn’t sound like, taste like and smell like the gospel Jesus then it requires re-interpreting through him and his use of scripture.  As I understand it, this gives us not only a biblical but a cosmic hermeneutic and we need have no awkwardness arguing from the politics of Jesus to our contemporary world.

An empire detector

Like buried metal, the assumptions of empire lie beneath the surface of our social world and we need something like an empire metal detector to unearth them. This is provided by historian theologians as various as N.T. Wright, Crossan and Reed, Richard Horsley, Warren Carter and Wes Howard-Brook who conclusively indicate that the gospel testimony is positioned counter to the politics of empire.  Radical philosophers such as Karl Marx and contemporary Neo-Marxists such as Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri and Ellen Meiksins Wood together with social commentators like Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky supply further counternarratives which can sharpen our insight when filtered through a Jesus lens. My own work tracks the genealogy of the church’s displacement of the gospel of love and its disastrous partnership with empire through Christendom history. For an accessible approach I recommend David Benjamin Blower’s Kingdom vs. Empire, Sympathy for Jonah and recently released The Book of Jonah Album. Unless we are sensitised to this empire virus we will continue to be immune to the sovereignty delusion that is spread like knotweed throughout our western spheres of education, health, business, the law, entertainment, sport, the arts and language itself.

A politics of love

There can be no politics of love without a transfiguring personal encounter with love. Love is not a system, theory or program. It’s a completely different kind of power to sovereignty. It is experienced as an actual non-violent spiritual force for overall wellbeing that is given not taken, and to give it one needs to have it! Framed in terms of Jesus’ politics, it issues in a rhythm of life in relationship with others that moves through subversion (challenging specific injustices of the status quo), to submission (accepting the consequences of subversion), and substantiation (strategically embodying acts of love), in repeated cycles. I first began to develop this in my recent books and in the collection of practitioners’ essays Discovering Kenarchy and am currently setting it out in more detail in The Politics of Love which I hope to publish in the coming year. Some have suggested that rooting all this in the politics of Jesus makes it too Christian.  I have two responses. The first is that given people are created both in the image of love and out of the trinitarian motivation of love, then all humans and indeed all creation have recourse to it. Secondly, the role of the radical ecclesia is to disregard the sovereignty system and deliberately come out in love, embracing all those of like mind whoever they are.

Let’s get on with it.

Roger Mitchell

If you want more from Roger, then I’d highly recommend our interview with him, that we conducted just after the Brexit vote:


If you want to go even deeper, check out Roger’s books The Fall of the Church and Discovering Kenarchy: Contemporary Resources for the Politics of Love. He also regularly blogs.

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