Interview with Bruce Benson: Evangelicals and Empire

January 05, 2009
Posted by Joe Gorra

We interviewed Bruce Ellis Benson, a professor and chairperson in the philosophy department at Wheaton College, about his recently co-edited book (with Peter Heltzel), Evangelicals and Empire: Christian Alternatives to the Political Status Quo (Baker Academic, 2008).

Please provide a brief overview of the book’s scope and thesis.

This groundbreaking collection considers empire from a global perspective, exploring the role of evangelicals in political, social, and economic engagement at a time when empire is alternately denounced and embraced. It brings noted thinkers from a range of theological perspectives together to engage the most explosive and discussed theorists of empire in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Using their work as a springboard, the contributors challenge evangelicalism’s identification with right-wing politics and grapple with the natures of both empire and evangelicalism.

Why the focus on “Evangelicals and Empire”?

As my co-editor and I considered the evangelical landscape, it became apparent that there was a rapidly developing critical mass of younger—and even somewhat older—evangelicals (such as the emergents, Jill Wallis, the red-letter Christians) who simply didn’t buy the evangelical embrace of empire. Hardt and Negri helped us think through the problem of empire not simply in terms of the nation state but also in terms of global capitalism. While we find Hardt and Negri’s vision of “multitude” problematic, the term resonates with a new generation of prophetic evangelicals who seek the embodiment of the kingdom of heaven.

Tell us about your own journey with this topic. How did you get interested?

Both of us happened to move to New York City just days before 9/11. That event awakened us to political realities in a remarkably new way. For my co-editor, that meant returning to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon at Riverside Church in 1967, in which he spoke of the need to forsake the idols of racism, materialism, and militarism and live into what he termed “the beloved community.” For me, it meant feeling in a deep and practical way the call of the marginalized other that is so central to the thought of the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and the Christian philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. Both of them remind us that God judges us on how we treat the least in society—the stranger, the widow, and the orphan.

In terms of the “political status quo” to which you offer “Christian alternatives,” what is in view here and why does that status quo require a Christian alternative?

At the time we began working on the book, the hold of the so-called “religious right” on the Republican Party was remarkably strong. While we as editors hold many things regarding orthodox Christianity in common with the “religious right,” we felt that an important missing aspect was what we term the “unified Gospel,” in which the personal Gospel is fully united with a concern for social justice (the so-called “Social Gospel”). I think it is safe to say that, however much the contributors to this volume differ on all sorts of things, they all agree on that commitment to a unified Gospel.

What is distinctly Christian about the alternatives that are presented?

In line with that commitment to a unified Gospel, the contributors to this volume take the truly radical aspects of the Gospel quite seriously. They are “prophetic” in the sense of returning to the calls of the Hebrew prophets, which Jesus repeats and even intensifies. Contributors to this volume take seriously the idea that the witness of the Christian community is distinct because we testify to the living Christ and are empowered by the Spirit to work for justice in the world. Whereas secular activists think that they can make the world a better place, we are saying—like King—that justice will flow like a mighty stream through the power of a loving God. We find this all to be deeply humbling, since we realize that we are merely repeating anew what the Hebrew prophets and Jesus said.

The book appears to be mostly focused on Western political policy and philosophy? Why is that?

Given that Hardt and Negri are working out of Marxist philosophy as inflected by Michel Foucault, they are western philosophy. In contrast, we are pushing back against them by way of world Christianity. We explicitly draw on world Christianity—whether African, Asian, or Latin American—to speak to the west. Although western Christians tend to think that Christianity is a “western” religion, the contributors to this volume try to remind those in the west that Christianity’s roots and certainly much of its history are distinctly eastern.

For Christian philosophers working on Christian and public policy issues, what advice would you offer for how to approach the subject of political power?

Read the four Gospels and do what Jesus commands.

More of Bruce Benson can be found at his website. This interview was the result of an advertisement agreement with Baker Academic.