Tuesday 29 July 2008

Review: Christ and Empire, Jorg Rieger

Rieger does ambivalence and Christological surplus

Since 1998 Joerg Rieger’s has written prolifically in the field of liberation theology and Church history. His most recent book, ‘Christ and Empire’ has been most widely welcomed as an accessible work of thorough scholarship. Methodist elder and ministerial tutor Rieger writes lucidly for a western audience within an ear to the majority world and an eye to the encroaching principalities and powers that dominate and shape our culture and politics.

Like Colin Ward, Rieger finds “seedlings of resistance and alternative living growing in the very soil of empire” (12). Riger traces some of the small shoots of religious revolt through a selective history of how the Church has got to grips with the question ‘Who is Christ’ – Christology!

Rieger begins obviously enough with the ancient ecumenical councils and the contentious role of Emperor Constantine in guiding Christology. Then, perhaps by way of contrast he develops a critique of Anselm of Canterbury (Chapter 3) and Barolomé de las Casas (Chapter 4). The author sees both resistance and capitulation to empire in the Christology of both. Rieger develops a Las Casas as the original spokesperson for the the “softly softly” approach to neo-colonialism of some free-traders and Big NGOs.

By the time Rieger engages with the ‘Father of Modern theology’ Friedrich Schleiermacher he is getting into a greater depth of original criticism. The “softer” exclusivism of Schleiermacher reflecting a more coercive and subtle colonisation. However, as Rieger persists in looking for “Christological surplus” in his subjects the reader may be left with the feeling that the author likes to flog dead horses just to give his arm the exercise.

Throughout the author is drawn to the ever-present “ambivalence” of the Cosmic Christ of faith to resistance to the empire.

Rieger has hit on two vital factors in the development of Christology. First, if religion is a human project then the project directors are often agents of empire. Second : “The resisting Christ of the cosmos looks different than the cosmic Christ of evolution, especially evolution is understood in a social-Darwinist manner” (303). Christ is not fully human competitor fully imperious divinity. But who, then, do we say he is? Rieger introduces an understanding of Christ that goes beyond the Cosmic and tries to avoid projecting statist values onto him. But in the end, even Rieger’s Christ shows evidence of some “ambivalence.”

Other books by Joerg Rieger:
Theology from the belly of the Whale
Methodist and Radical
Liberating the Future