Empire: The Christian Tradition

by Kwok Pui-lan, Don Compier, Joerg Rieger (editors), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This is a wonderful compilation of 29 theologians and comments on their work as seen in the empires they wrote in. They range from Paul, through Calvin, Luther, Bonhoeffer and Niebuhr, and end with several present-day African theologians. The rationale of the anthology is to see how differing imperial and cultural perspectives affected their writing. The editors point to the tensions between the Christian tradition and the empire in the infancy narratives—the presence of Caesar Augustus and of Herod.

The convening of church councils focused the tensions of the empire and the book details the intersection of theology and empire. “Without understanding how we are shaped by empire, we cannot properly identify those institutions, and insights that point us beyond the horizons of empire” (pp. 10, 13).

I will touch only on St. Paul and on east African theologian John Mbiti, but each of the people surveyed demonstrates the effect his or her particular empire had on their theology. Paul is an interesting example; Tatha Wiley points out how her readers’ perspectives, shaped by their empire, affected the interpretation of Paul, and she points out two Pauline analyses, the one reflecting the early church’s empire influence. The empire’s influence is driven not only in the writer (Paul) but in the interpretation (pp. 56, 57). Perkinson’s summary of Mbiti focuses on the concept of “time”: “present future” that extends only six months hence, and the “present” that is “yesterday” (p. 463)—time is largely two-dimensional, focused on past and present. Or how would one gain concrete perspective on the precise place where “Christianity” can be distinguished from “imperial violence” (p. 460)?

Powerful treatment of key people, pointing out the effects of imperial perspectives and their influence on theological conversations. —Vern Ratzlaff, pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada