Exiles in the Empire: Believers Church Perspectives on Politics

by Nathan Yoder and Carol Sheppard, editors ( 2006), reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

This is a book that explores the troubling paradox of the United States appearing to be both imperial and Christian, living the gospel authentically while also being citizen in an imperial superpower, of being exiles in the empire.  Eighteen essays explore themes of a believers Church Conference held in September 2004.

For me, the key chapters are ‘Jesus’ Confrontation with Empire’, ‘Seek the Welfare of the Empire’, ‘A Personal Journey to Political Involvement, ‘Why Believers Might Conscientiously Abstain from Voting’, ‘Prayer by the Chaplain’.  Several chapters reflect the situation and gospel witness in Lithuania, China, South Africa and Vietnam.

For the United States to be both Christian and imperial is troubling from a missiological, ecclesiological, ethical and Christological perspective.  Metaphors express that hope, metaphors of permanence and transience, of homeland and pilgrimage (p 2-4).  Ted  Grimsrud mentions four connecting points in ‘Jesus’ Confrontation with Empire:  empire’s agents care more about coercive power than about truth (e.g., Jesus and Pilate), the empire’s violence toward any all threats, Jesus’ contrast with imperial leadership styles, the resurrection as an ultimate counter-empire statement’ (p 42). 

‘Seek the Welfare of the Empire’ looks at the implications of Jeremiah’s counsel to the Jewish exiles, exploring the tension of theologically being exiles while politically being Christians, with three implications.  (1) G-d’s primary concern is not the United States empire but the state of the United States church.  (2)  Be prepared for the long haul.  (3)  Find a way booth to love and to resist the empire (e.g., prayer, practice and prophetic witness).  ‘Embodying a new reconciled reality, not advocacy to government, is our first order in a church. . . .  Our well being is not in defeating the empire but in providing viable alternatives to it’ (p 306).  A powerfully prophetic book.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.